Football: Liverpool expose Boro's dearth of youth

Liverpool 3 Middlesbrough 1
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The Independent Online
REPUTATION, UNLESS you are someone like Alex Ferguson with so much repute in the bank you could survive years of withdrawal, is a temporary thing.

Six months ago Roy Hodgson would have walked into the England job, now he has a Blackburn sacking on the debit side. Bryan Robson's star is still high but for how much longer? The overwhelming impression left by this game was that he should be contacting Lancaster Gate this morning because there are few grounds for optimism on Teesside.

There are gruesome echoes of two seasons ago about Middlesbrough's descent. Then, even with Juninho, they plummeted like a stone and, courtesy of the Football Association docking them three points, were relegated.

It should not happen again, if only because they have 35 points already and would not be daft enough to send a weakened side anywhere, but it will be a spring of anxiety. In December Boro briefly touched second place in the Premiership and beat Manchester United at Old Trafford but have not won since and have a ragged look of a team that is over the hill and abseiling down.

Too many players are over 30 but age is not the only reason for their troubles because the team has two sides wanting irreconcilable things. The strikers, particularly Brian Deane, are begging for wingers to hare down the flanks and fire over crosses while the midfield like painting pretty patterns before producing cute passes that would be ideal for quicker forwards.

As a consequence Liverpool could be functional rather than brilliant - and we have demanded that from them so often we can hardly quibble now - and still win at a canter thanks to the craft of Jamie Redknapp and Paul Ince.

They went ahead after eight minutes courtesy of Michael Owen tapping in after Robbie Fowler had revealed his extraordinary predatory powers and then allowed Middlesbrough to play in front of them, waiting for the moments to pounce.

They duly arrived just before half-time, Vegard Heggem and Ince, in his 500th League game, scoring within seconds of each other. "A bad minute" was how Robson described it, which rather discounted the mad hours which have been spent compiling a team which is long in experience and woefully short in youthful pace.

The second half consequently became a contest only after Dominic Matteo was sent off when Boro could use their numerical advantage to score through Phil Stamp five minutes from the end. "I was pleased with the performance," Robson said, which was akin to Napoleon taking pride in the orderly way his troops left the field at Waterloo. The best moments arrived too late.

The dismissal provided the main talking point afterwards, exposing the facile regimentation of the rules by football's world governing body, Fifa. The home supporters were furious with the referee, Peter Jones, and Mikkel Beck for their parts in Matteo's red card but both were blameless.

Television evidence showed Matteo's knee had clipped Beck's heel as the Dane raced clear. He did not dive, the trip was accidental, but Jones had no choice but to send Matteo off because the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and his like give the referee no discretion to use their judgement whatsoever.

Fifa wants robots in charge of matches and that is what they are going to get and they will only be happy when R2D2 officiates in the World Cup final. The daleks are taking over after all.

Both managers agreed that Matteo had to go, but in those circumstances the sending-off should be enough punishment. The Football Association should use whatever powers they have not had stripped by the world governing body and waive a suspension.

Goals: Fowler (8) 1-0; Heggem (44) 2-0; Ince (45) 3-0; Stamp (85) 3-1.

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Carragher, Matteo, Staunton; Heggem, Redknapp, Ince, McManaman, Bjornebye; Owen (Gerrard, 80), Fowler (Riedle, 80). Substitutes (not used): Song, Harkness, Friedel (gk)

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Cooper, Vickers, Pallister; Festa (Stamp, 61), Mustoe, Gascoigne, Townsend (Maddison, 72), Gordon; Beck, Deane. Substitutes (not used): Moore, Stockdale, Beresford (gk).

Sending-off: Liverpool: Matteo. Bookings: Liverpool: Ince; Middlesbrough: Pallister, Maddison.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Man of the match: Redknapp.

Attendance: 44,384.