Rafael Benítez has, temporarily at least, given up looking at the table, and on this evidence Gareth Southgate must have convinced his players to do the same. Middlesbrough continue to punch above their weight against the Premier League elite but at present Liverpool - haemorrhaging further points - barely merit that description.
A fortunate point saw them clamber uncertainly back into the top four on goal difference but for two-thirds of the match they looked ill at ease, bereft of inspiration and distinctly second best.
"In our position you can't think about the leaders," said Benítez, who refuses to hoist the white flag on his team's forlorn title hopes, despite conceding a 12-point advantage to Manchester United and Arsenal, albeit with a game in hand.
The latest addition to Fernando Torres's personal goal-of-the-season competition, a stunning late 25-yard strike, salvaged a modicum of pride and a share of the spoils at a ground where Liverpool have failed to win for six years, scoring only once in nine hours of play. Middlesbrough, ahead through George Boateng's scrambled first goal of the season midway through the first half, would have been out of sight had not José Reina touched Stewart Downing's second-half shot on to a post.
A fourth consecutive draw, three of them in the league and two of those against eminently beatable sides, was yesterday accompanied by fresh speculation that a change of ownership may be imminent. With the current incumbents Tom Hicks and George Gillett nearing the deadline to restructure a £350m loan, the investment group Dubai International Capital are reportedly ready to renew their interest in the club.
For the time being this fresh twist deflects attention from the supposedly strained relationship between Benítez and the American owners. While sticking to the line that the players must concentrate on matters on the field Sami Hyypia saw fit to veer slightly from the manifesto. The defender, who almost won the game for Liverpool with a close-range, injury-time header, said: "In football things can happen very quickly but the players hope that, if there are arguments, they can be sorted out. We seem to be becoming like Newcastle. Every time we pick up a paper there seems to be something new." Recent displays suggest the boardroom uncertainty may be having an adverse effect and, although Liverpool may have troubles, they are some way from descending into the St James' Park farce.
Southgate could not help but see the irony after speaking to Benítez after the game. "We had players out there who were on loan at Darlington and Billingham Synthonia last season," he said. "You can't really believe what we're dealing with and Rafa is telling me he's got no money."
The Middlesbrough manager is encountering smaller-scale problems, though equally pressing. "A lot of Friday evenings I think this is ridiculous because we haven't had anywhere near to a full strength squad to pick from. This was a result forged through adversity. We lose Jonathan Woodgate and then my keeper says he's been up all night ill. To say black humour sets in is an under-statement."
It is more black clouds than black humour for Benítez but the Spaniard said: "I don't find the constant speculation difficult to deal with. I just concentrate on the next game because you can't do anything about it."
As a manager who enjoys the support of the Premier League's most grounded chairman, Steve Gibson, Southgate sympathises with Benítez over the scrutiny under which he operates. "Clearly his record is outstanding. The game is crackers at the moment," he said.
Middlesbrough remain in danger largely due to a home record of only two victories this season. The route to safety will be plotted by ensuring the same level of performance that accounted for one of those, Arsenal - and almost Liverpool - in the next four homes games against Wigan, Fulham, Reading and Derby.
"This is a tough place for the big clubs to come," said Gary O'Neil, the Middlesbrough midfielder. "We have to make sure we perform like we do against them no matter who we play."
Man of the match George Boateng (Middlesbrough)
How the Reds rely on Gerrard and Torres
Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have scored more than half, 18, of Liverpool's league goals (35) this season and their contributions have often been crucial. Gerrard scored late winners at Aston Villa and Derby County and Torres's goals have earned them points against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Wigan Athletic and Middlesbrough.
The last time Liverpool won in the league without their captain or Spanish forward scoring was almost three months ago, against Everton, with Dirk Kuyt scoring twice in a 2-1 win. Without the two players, Liverpool would have 12 points fewer and sit in 10th in the league with Rafael Benítez probably looking for a new job.
26' Boateng 1-0
71' 1-1 Torres
Mark Schwarzer, Jonathan Grounds, Robert Huth, David Wheater, Luke Young, George Boateng, Stewart Downing, Gary O'Neil, Fabio Rochemback, Jeremie Aliadiere (Ben Hutchinson), Sanli Tuncay
Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa (Ryan Babel), Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia, Yossi Benayoun (Xabi Alonso), Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, John Arne Riise, Fernando Torres, Andriy Voronin (Dirk Kuyt)
Referee: Marriner, A
Venue: The Riverside Stadium
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