Football: Good at home but not title deeds

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The Independent Online
Liverpool 3

Owen 9, Heggem 44, Ince 45

Middlesbrough 1

Stamp 86

Half-time: 3-0 Attendance: 44,384

TRUST Manchester United to spoil Liverpool's day. The appreciative gasps that greeted Liverpool's three-goal first-half demolition of Middlesbrough turned to forlorn groans when the result from Nottingham Forest was announced.

For the leading Premiership pack continued to keep Liverpool at a frustrating distance despite the surge in form of Gerard Houllier's side. And Liverpool, for all their domination, never quite reached the peaks against a Middlesbrough side that refused to be embarrassed. Their own impotence in attack, which has contributed to a run of just two points from six league games, was in contrast to the formidable flashes of attacking potency that make Liverpool so dangerous.

Those thrusts were largely restricted to the first half as, following the dismissal of Dominic Matteo, consolidation was the order of the day. The hard work had already been done, though, with the return of the intricate Steve McManaman providing an effective contrast to the more direct approach of Paul Ince and Jamie Redknapp.

McManaman was afforded a warm welcome back to Anfield and, although his touch is still a little rusty, his return completes a formidable offensive Liverpool line-up. Paul Gascoigne also showed a spring in his step with some tricky touches for Middlesbrough, although the end product often served to highlight the problems that the visiting manager Bryan Robson has around the box.

Liverpool's cutting edge, however, could not be sharper and early Middlesbrough hesitancy in defence was soon punished. Ince was unable to make clean contact with a header from a corner but the ball fell to Robbie Fowler. His predatory overhead kick was goalward bound until Michael Owen popped up at the opposite post to claim the rewards.

Redknapp was instrumental in the second, releasing Stig Inge Bjornebye down the left to whip in a cross that evaded the storming red masses in the area but reached Vegard Heggem just inside the box. His stunning side- footed volley fizzed straight into the top corner.

Having hit Southampton for seven in the previous home game, the scent of blood was in Liverpool's nostrils. And there is no one with a keener sense of smell of the vulnerable than Ince, who deployed a more legitimate side of his ruthless streak to score the third moments later and just before the interval. Another cross from the left fell to Owen who was lining up his second until Ince nipped in to rob his colleague and slide past Mark Schwarzer.

Liverpool were knocked off their stride by the second half dismissal of Matteo. Racing clear on to a Brian Deane flick, Mikkel Beck induced contact from the chasing Liverpool defender. Beck's graceful sprawl made the red card inevitable. As much as Middlesbrough pressed against the 10 men, openings remained scarce until Phil Stamp slammed home a late consolation after Colin Cooper had hit the post.

Houllier reserved praise for the work rate of his strike pair and retains a guarded interest in the championship race. He said: "We have to hope that at some stage the leaders will drop points as I am sure they will. I think we desperately needed to come back to winning ways and it was a very good team performance. They showed two faces after Matteo's sending off - they had to show their guts and team spirit."

Robson was able to extract positives from the display but recognised the deficiencies. "We've got to start working in and around the box and need to get our noses in front early on."