Determined Liverpool vindicate Houllier

Gerard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, admitted that his team were now in pole position to claim the final Champions League berth after second-half goals from Danny Murphy and Emile Heskey secured victory against Middlesbrough.

Victories from their remaining two Premiership fixtures will confirm Liverpool's return to a place among Europe's elite as, finally, Houllier's team showed signs that their manager's absolute faith has not been misplaced.

Houllier's defence of his team in recent weeks has often sounded like the pleading of a desperate man determined to clutch every last straw as justification for Liverpool's failings.

Ill-luck and injuries have been referred to on an almost weekly basis and Houllier's programme notes ahead of this game were used to counter suggestions that Liverpool were "boring", with him discounting that description by claiming that, before last week's victory at Manchester United, "we were the team that had recorded most shots on target, the most shots off target and the most corners."

UEFA have yet to dream up a competition for clubs at the top of the corner table, so it was perhaps timely that Liverpool finally traded their near-misses and corners for the hard currency of goals against Steve McClaren's team.

Buoyed by Newcastle's 1-0 defeat at Manchester City 24 hours earlier, Liverpool began the game determined and captain Steven Gerrard, in particular, resembled a man possessed as he barked and drove his team-mates on.

Harry Kewell twice forced Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer into reflex saves in the opening 15 minutes before Michael Owen turned defender Chris Riggott on the edge of the penalty area only to see his right-foot shot cannon off the far post. Liverpool's attacking intent, so often lacking this season, was there for all to see, but Schwarzer's goal remained intact as the first half drifted on.

Indeed, but for the legs of goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, Liverpool could have fallen behind when Joseph-Desire Job wastefully shot straight at the Pole after being put free by Massimo Maccarone.

The injury-enforced half-time withdrawals of Vladimir Smicer and Stephane Henchoz for Heskey and Steve Finnan proved key for the home side, however, with the introduction of Heskey handing Liverpool a more incisive edge.

Owen twice went close in the opening three minutes of the second half before the England forward won a penalty following a collision with Riggott six yards out. Having missed five penalties already this season, Liverpool's record from 12 yards hardly inspired confidence as Murphy stepped up, but the midfielder added to his successful penalty at Old Trafford last week by beating Schwarzer to open the scoring.

McClaren said: "It was a harsh penalty. When somebody falls down in the penalty box and the cheer goes up, you are always susceptible to conceding a penalty, so it was rather unfortunate from my point of view."

Four minutes later, the game was won when Heskey pounced on Owen's back-heel 12 yards out before beating Schwarzer from close range.

Aston Villa's late-season surge may yet be enough to deny Liverpool a return to the Champions League, but Houllier is backing his players to secure fourth place.

He said: "We have beaten a very good team in Middlesbrough, but our confidence is back now. It was affected when we lost at Arsenal, but the players feel good again. I have told the players that fourth place is ours and they will give blood and sweat to make sure we get there."

Remaining games in battle for European places

Newcastle: May 9, Wolves (h); May 12, Southampton (a); May 15, Liverpool (a).
Liverpool: May 8, Birmingham (a); May 15, Newcastle (h).
Aston Villa: May 8, Southampton (a); May 15, Man Utd (h).
4th wins Champions League place; 5th UEFA Cup place.

Match details

Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Henchoz (Heskey 45), Hyypia, Riise, Murphy, Hamann, Gerrard, Smicer (Finnan 45), Kewell, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Baros, Cheyrou, Luzi Bernardi.
Booked: Gerrard.
Goals: Murphy 50 pen, Heskey 53.

Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Mills, Ehiogu, Riggott (Downing 64), Queudrue, Mendieta, Greening, Boateng, Zenden, Job (Ricketts 82), Maccarone (Nemeth 64).
Subs Not Used: Jones, Bates.
Booked: Mills.

Att: 42,031
Ref: A D'Urso (Essex).

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