Deadly Fowler's fantastic foursome

Liverpool 5 Fowler 1, 28, 77, 85, Bjornebye 45 Middlesbrough 1 Fjortoft 75 Attendance: 39,491
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A week after the surprise of losing at home to Sheffield Wednesday cast uncertainty on their championship ambitions, Liverpool returned imperiously to the form of title favourites at Anfield yesterday, demolishing an increasingly desperate Middlesbrough with a mouthwatering performance led from the front by an irrepressible Robbie Fowler, who scored four of their goals.

The 21-year-old striker, as deadly in the penalty area as any owner of a Liverpool No 9 shirt, left his imprint on yesterday's business after only 29 seconds and completed 100 goals for the club with his second of the afternoon, reaching the milestone in one match fewer than it took his mentor, Ian Rush. Middlesbrough, with Emerson restored to midfield but short of full fitness, could do little but stand back in awe.

One way and another, Middlesbrough have not enjoyed much kindness of fortune this season but there comes a point when results begin to argue with the notion of unluckiness. Without a win in 12 Premiership matches, Bryan Robson's expensive side has probably passed that mark already. They have nothing ahead of them now but another struggle to maintain their Premiership status.

With three defenders and Juninho missing, the odds were against them yesterday. Even so, they might have hoped to keep the scoresheet blank for a little longer than 29 seconds.

Perhaps it was Liverpool's directness that took them by surprise. Stan Collymore, regaining his place from flu victim Patrik Berger, went straight for the throat, running 40 yards from inside his own half, leaving behind Emerson and shrugging aside the challenge of Derek Whyte before releasing Fowler, who beat Gary Walsh from 12 yards.

If Liverpool had wanted to test the stability of Middlesbrough's makeshift back three they thus had immediate evidence that it was suspect. Thereafter the traffic was solidly one-way, rendering Fabrizio Ravanelli, who had scored a hat-trick when the sides met on the first day of the season, a peripheral figure.

Fowler doubled Liverpool's lead inside the opening half-hour. Again, Collymore, who had already seen a wickedly curled shot pushed away by Walsh, was at the heart of things, chasing Steve McManaman's through-ball and unleashing another fine strike. This one hit the inside of the left- hand post and, as Walsh tried in vain to reach the rebound, the predatory Fowler pounced again.

On the stroke of half-time it was 3-0. McManaman was felled by Whyte a yard or two outside the penalty area. Collymore bent the free-kick around the wall and although Walsh again saved well, the loose ball popped up for Stig Bjornebye to head home.

Accused of lacking ideas against Wednesday, Liverpool were now full of them. There was no one shackling McManamanbut Fowler and Collymore were causing just as much damage.

There was a sense that Liverpool could score with every new surge of red shirts. In fact, the next goal came at the other end to silence, temporarily, the celebratory atmosphere among the Liverpool fans. Craig Hignett whipped in a free-kick from the right and the faintest of glances from the head of Jan Fjortoft diverted it past David James.

Liverpool responded with renewed ferocity. McManaman punished Robbie Mustoe's carelessness in midfield before setting up Fowler for his hat- trick and then, with six minutes remaining, the excellent Collymore inflicted the final wound, sending Fowler skipping into the penalty area to expose Middlesbrough's defence yet again.