Football: Boxing Day guide to the Premiership

MATCH OF THE DAY: Middlesbrough v Liverpool
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The Independent Online
BRYAN ROBSON should really be full of festive cheer as he welcomes Liverpool to fortress Riverside this afternoon. But although his Middlesbrough side - unbeaten in their last 11 league games, unbeaten at home for twice as many, and placed fourth in the table after last week's surprise 3-2 win at Old Trafford - seem to be sitting pretty, all Robson can talk about is avoiding relegation. Then again, he knows all too much about the subject and his cautious approach is possibly making his players more determined to prove wrong those who'd written them off.

"We need another 12 points and then we've got the 42 that we set out to get at the start of the season," Robson said this week. "We're still building at the club and we've still got a long way to go to get up there with the likes of the Arsenals and Man Utds, but we feel that we're going the right way.

"If somebody had said to me that we were going to be a point behind Man Utd and above Arsenal at this stage of the season, I would have snapped their hands off at the start of the season."

The win at Old Trafford was achieved without the presence of Paul Gascoigne (left), who was serving a one-match ban but he should return today. "That's a good boost for us, the way Gazza's been playing of late," Robson said. Gary Pallister is rated as having a better than 50-50 chance of recovering from a heel injury, but Robbie Mustoe is almost certain to miss out both today and on Monday at Derby because of a hamstring problem.

Steve McManaman has played himself back into contention for Liverpool but manager Gerard Houllier will not say whether he will start today. The side have lost six of the nine games that McManaman has missed, and Houllier knows he can't do without the winger's talents. As the French manager will also not be able to call on his compatriot, recent midfield signing Jean-Michel Ferri (ankle), Macca's chances may have improved.

"The best present we could give our fans is to win the two games over Christmas," Houllier said. "If we do that we have a chance to come back and play in the top third of the table, which is very important. The team is better, playing with more confidence. At the moment I'm happy the team is working well and becoming more confident in its defensive abilities."

One player not lacking confidence should be Michael Owen (right) and if nothing else, today's match will offer him - and Paul Gascoigne - another chance to demonstrate why (or why not) they have glittering England careers ahead of them.

MIDDLESBROUGH (from): Schwarzer, Festa, Cooper, Vickers, Pallister, Gordon, Mustoe, Maddison, Gascoigne, Townsend, Deane, Ricard, Beck.

LIVERPOOL (from): James, Heggem, Carragher, Staunton, Babb, Bjornebye, Berger, Ince, Redknapp, McManaman, Owen, Fowler, Riedle, Matteo, Friedel, Thompson, Kvarme, McAteer, Leonhardsen.

Suspensions: None.

Referee: G Poll.

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