MASTERS in Madrid, miserable in Middlesbrough – Liverpool may have few peers in Europe but the Premier League is still beyond them.
All too predictably, a memorable European victory has been followed up with a forgettable domestic defeat and one so gut wrenching that the away end at the Riverside had emptied long before the final whistle.
There have been worse Liverpool performances than this under Rafa Benitez but not too many and this colourless display was a fitting way for Liverpool’s title hopes to evaporate for yet another year.
In reality, such dreams came to an end with last week’s draw with Manchester City and the Reds’ latest nightmare at the Riverside simply confirmed what everyone already knew.
It might be hard to accept given the rivalry between the two clubs, but the truth is that Liverpool are not good enough to compete with Manchester United over the course of a league season and the superiority of the reigning champions will again be confirmed come May – and maybe even before then.
The history books will tell us that Middlesbrough beat Liverpool by two goals to nil on Saturday and that scoreline will never be in dispute.
But the travelling fans who endured an afternoon of abject misery will rightly point to the paucity of their team’s performance and claim that it was not the real Liverpool, not having seen them succumb so meekly to a side which hadn’t won a single league game for three months previously.
How is it possible to go from beating Real Madrid in their own backyard to being all too easily overcome by Middlesbrough in theirs, all in the space of three days?
That is the question which Benitez needs to find the solution to if Liverpool are ever to lose their tag of being over achievers in Europe but under achievers in England.
At first glance the answer is simple – his squad is sorely lacking the strength in depth necessary to compete week in, week out given the extreme rigour and continuous tests that come as standard in the Premier League.
The big opportunity was lost last summer, not on Saturday, when the chance went begging to make the improvements needed to make the leap from also-rans to genuine challengers.
None of the players who were signed back then started at the Riverside and this in itself is a damning indictment of a transfer strategy which was quite clearly flawed.
Robbie Keane has been shipped off to Spurs, Philipp Degen remains on the treatment table he seems attached to, Andrea Dossena has barely figured and has looked out of his depth when he has and Albert Riera has lost his way in recent weeks following a decent start to his Anfield career.
Team sheets do not always give a foolproof pointer to the likely result but there can’t be too many Liverpool fans who were filled with anticipation at seeing a starting line-up which featured Martin Skrtel playing out of position at right back, Nabil El Zhar on the right, Dirk Kuyt on his own up front and Ryan Babel selected.
In fairness to El Zhar, the young Moroccan offered fleeting moments of promise only to be let down badly by his finishing skills, while Skrtel cannot be criticised for struggling in a role he had never previously played.
For Babel it is a case of the less said the better because any scrutiny of his display would invariably lead to questions being asked about whether the reported £11m Liverpool paid for him is missing a decimal point.
Let’s just say the Dutchman spent the 90 minutes doing little more than jumping out of tackles, ducking away from headers and showing such little passion for the shirt he was wearing that Rick Parry will surely have to hold the Anfield exit door open for him come May.
Babel was the worst of a bad lot as Liverpool allowed a promising start to the game to come to nothing thanks to a combination of their own profligacy in front of goal and their ongoing frailties at set pieces.
After a series of chances had come and gone Xabi Alonso was the unfortunate scorer of the own goal which meant the hosts had a number one accompanying their name on the scoreboard for the first time in almost nine hours of league football.
From that point on things went from bad to worse and Liverpool’s football deteriorated alarmingly as passes went astray with increasing regularity, allowing Middlesbrough’s confidence to grow.
Last season Liverpool produced a performance of only marginally higher quality at the same venue but on that occasion they had Fernando Torres to bail them out. This time that task fell to substitute David Ngog – another of last summer’s dubious signings – and the Frenchman could not fill the Spaniard’s shoes.
By the time Tuncay struck Middlesbrough’s second it was more a case of the Anfield outfit being put out of their misery than of it being added to.
There was to be no thrilling comeback this time around and Benitez acknowledged as much when he substituted both Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard and raised the white flag on Liverpool’s title hopes.
The inquest into where it has all gone so badly wrong for Liverpool will have already begun because having looked like the only team ready to battle it out with United just a couple of weeks ago they are all of a sudden in the sights of fourth placed Aston Villa.
It was little over a decade ago that the Reds finished fourth in a two horse race and there will now be very real fears that history could be about to repeat itself, particularly if they can be swatted aside with such little fuss by a Middlesbrough side which has played the whipping boys role for most of this season.
The most disappointing element of what was only their second defeat of the season is that after going two goals down Liverpool did not display the character and belief which has served them so well throughout the campaign.
It was as if they sensed the game was up on their title challenge and could not raise themselves for a battle which form and logic suggested they could not win.
Now everyone at the club has to steel themselves for the unpalatable inevitability that Manchester United will soon join them on 18 league titles.
Alex Ferguson may not have knocked Liverpool off their perch just yet but he is about to join them on it and there is now little anyone at Anfield can do to stop them.
Trophy hopes now rest in Europe where it is to be hoped their quest for glory will be longer lived than the one at home.
Middlesbrough 2 – 0
(HT 1 – 0)
Alonso (og) 32
Bookings Tuncay 64
Middlesbrough's Percentage Liverpool's Percentage
Corners 2 18% 9 82%
Goal attempts 5 23% 16 77%
On target 3 30% 7 70%
Fouls 2 25% 6 75%
Offside 5 71% 2 29%
Middlesbrough Bradley Jones, Emanuel Pogatetz, Matthew Bates, David Wheater, Justin Hoyte, Robert Huth, Julio Arca (Josh Walker, 88), Gary O'Neil, Stewart Downing, Sanli Tuncay (Adam Johnson, A, 79), Jeremie Aliadiere (Marlon King, 68)
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Sami Hyypia, Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher (Yossi Benayoun, 71), Steven Gerrard (Lucas Leiva, 76), Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt, Nabil El Zhar (David N'Gog, 68)
Referee Styles, R
Venue The Riverside Stadium
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