HAVING waited more than a century to reach their first major Wembley final, Middlesbrough will traipse down to the old stadium for the third time inside 12 months after overcoming Liverpool in a taut, dramatic Coca- Cola Cup semi-final.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg at Anfield, the First Division side took barely three minutes to turn the tie to their advantage. It was an explosive start from which the Merseysiders never fully recovered.
Promotion back to the Premiership remains Middlesbrough's prime objective, but a date in the capital next month with Chelsea, their conquerors in the FA Cup final only last May, serves as a welcome side show. A Uefa Cup place would also be the perfect riposte to the big money triumvirate of Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson, who jumped ship, one by one, after the ambitious Teesside club went down last season.
After the disappointment of last year it would be a great achievement by these players to bounce back and win a trophy. "I can't speak highly enough of them," their manager Brian Robson said. "That's got to be the best performance and the best result since I took the job here."
And what of Liverpool? Yes, what of Liverpool? Bursting with talent, overflowing with household names and a source of utter frustration to their manager Roy Evans. Win, lose or draw, each game brings a renewed examination of his position.
Evans said: "It was a crazy start. Kamikaze. Suicidal stuff. We had a game plan, which was out of the window in less than four minutes. We handed it to them on a plate with sloppy defending."
Quite simply, Liverpool seemed unprepared for Middlesbrough's super-charged start. Inside 90 seconds Mikkel Beck swapped passes with Craig Hignett, surged into the box and tumbled to the floor as Jamie Carragher made contact from behind. David James dived left as Paul Merson planted his penalty to the goalkeeper's right.
Almost from the restart Merson was involved again. Marco Branca was supposedly being saved for Saturday's vital derby with Sunderland but, less than 48 hours after touching down on Teesside to complete his pounds 1m move from Internazionale, here was the veteran Italian striker racing on to the former Gunner's long through ball to score with his first meaningful touch in the English game.
Thereafter Liverpool enjoyed plentiful possession but were kept at a safe distance by resolute defence, with Boro looking to break quickly whenever possible. Robbie Fowler saw a rising drive athletically tipped off, Karlheinz Riedle watched a header slide beyond the upright, but this was destined to be Middlesbrough's night.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kinder, Pearson, Vickers, Festa; Townsend, Merson, Mustoe, Hignett (Baker, 75); Branca, Beck. Substitutes not used: Fleming, Ormerod.
Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Jones, Carragher, Matteo (Leonhardsen, h-t), Harkness; Berger (Riedle, 65), Ince, McManaman, Bjornebye; Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Dorset).