Liverpool's slow burn fizzles at the finish

Jonny Wilkinson spent part of his summer at Middlesbrough's training ground, swapping tips with Steve McClaren's players. A game bereft of a single shot on target could certainly have done with a little of the England rugby hero's incision but, thanks to attractive cameos from Gaizka Mendieta, Juninho and Steven Gerrard, it proved a surprisingly entertaining stalemate.

Gerard Houllier's reaction to the home defeat against Manchester United a fortnight ago was to drop his goalkeeper, replacing Jerzy Dudek with Chris Kirkland. It was, of course, an error by Dudek which allowed Gareth Southgate to score the winner for Boro in last season's corresponding fixture here.

At the time Houllier's team were top of the Premiership but, thereafter, their form regressed alarmingly, prompting the manager to modify Liverpool's counter-attacking style. Middlesbrough, too, have a penchant for defending deep and playing on the break but they opened by taking the game to Liverpool courtesy of much slick, snappy passing through midfield. This persistently foundered on the edge of a heavily fortified visiting penalty area.

Returning from a lengthy injury-induced absence, Kirkland was not tested until well into the first period, when he was bundled over by a combination of Mendieta and Djimi Traore and required prolonged treatment.

No matter. Kirkland, who had advanced from his line in anticipation of a strike from Mendieta, was effectively rescued by his left back, Traore making an impeccably timed tackle just as the Spaniard, put through by Juninho's clever pass, shaped to shoot.

Although Riverside regulars clamoured for a penalty, the referee had made the right decision.

Bar a slightly less dramatic, if equally important, tackle from Colin Cooper on Michael Owen at the other end, it was a distinctly slow burn first 45 minutes. This was enlivened by some nice touches on Mendieta's part, along with an adventurous interpretation of the right-back role from young Andrew Davies, deputising for the suspended Danny Mills.

Moreover, Davies also succeeded in keeping Harry Kewell, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security due to Mills's absence, surprisingly quiet. So much so that the Australian regularly drifted infield and sporadically tried his luck on the right wing.

Driven on by the impressive Gerrard, Houllier's men seemed to have gained fresh attacking impetus in the second half and began monopolising possession, but their game still suffered a shortage of crosses. Significantly, when El-Hadji Diouf finally delivered one, Kewell fired wide.

Encouraged, Diouf repeated the feat, this time for Florent Sinama-Pongolle, on for Owen, but, with Mark Schwarzer stranded the young player blasted wildly over the bar. Next, Liverpool appealed for a penalty when Franck Queudrue, already booked, felled Pongolle in the area but the referee adjudged the tackle clean.

Taking advantage of Liverpool's decision to push forward, Juninho benefited from increasing space as the game unravelled but his runs and passes were consistently undone by the absence of an efficient finisher.

Match details

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Queudrue, Davies, Southgate, Cooper, Mendieta, Boateng, Doriva, Zenden, Ricketts (Nemeth 70), Juninho Paulista.
Subs Not Used: Nash, Riggott, Maccarone, Greening.
Booked: Queudrue, Doriva.

Liverpool: Kirkland, Finnan (Diao 47), Traore, Biscan, Hyypia, Kewell, Murphy, Gerrard, Diouf (Smicer 74), Heskey, Owen (Sinama Pongolle 68).
Subs Not Used: Dudek, Le Tallec.
Booked: Hyypia, Kewell.

Att: 34,268
Ref: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

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