Liverpool. . . .2
IT IS tough at the bottom. The downcast expressions of the Middlesbrough players said it all as they staggered off, muddied and bowed, at the end of another battling but unrewarding performance. For all their fight, the door to the Premier League that they marched through last year now seems certain to slam behind them come May, if not before.
The legs had been willing but Liverpool, although they did not play well, had more skill individually and collectively, and there was a sense of inevitability about Ian Rush's winner nine minutes from time. 'He was one of the few who played to their capabilities,' Graeme Souness said afterwards. 'We had some players who were affected by the sun.'
So for the former Boro hero his first return as a manager proved successful, and in 14th place Liverpool look safe. Yet their patchy, strangely spiritless display did nothing to suggest that the good times will soon return.
It is difficult when relegation threatens to recover from going behind after 10 minutes, which was what the home side faced when Don Hutchison cracked in the loose ball following Ian Ironside's fumble. Within four minutes, however, they were level with a goal out of nothing. John Hendrie looked to be chasing a lost cause as he followed in Jimmy Phillips's free-kick, but the pressure he put on Steve Nicol was enough to force the defender into lobbing the ball over his advancing goalkeeper.
The visitors had to hold on for a while before thinking about attacking again. When they did, in the shape of audacious runs by Hutchison and Steve McManaman (twice), it took last-ditch tackles and a marvellously agile save by Ironside to deny them.
Tempers, which had been simmering, were not improved by inconsistent refereeing and in the second half the game developed into an unseemly spat of dangerously late tackles. Mr Peck, it must be said, did not have a good game and missed the worst lunge of all by Mark Wright on Paul Wilkinson.
As the game ebbed away Liverpool's threats continued. In the 81st minute David Burrows' free-kick was held up by Hutchison and Rush buried it and Middlesbrough.
Middlesbrough: I Ironside; C Morris, J Phillips, N Mohan, A Peake, D Whyte (T Wright, 82 min), J Hendrie, R Mustoe, P Wilkinson, W Falconer, C Hignett. Subs not used: B Slaven, B Roberts (gk). Manager: L Lawrence.
Liverpool: D James; D Burrows, R Jones, S Nicol, M Wright, R Whelan, S McManaman (J Redknapp, 66 min), D Hutchison, I Rush, J Barnes, R Rosenthal (M Walters, h/t). Sub not used: M Hooper (gk). Manager: G Souness.
Referee: M Peck (Kendal).
Goals: Hutchinson (0-1, 10 min); Nicol og (1-1, 14 min); Rush (1-2, 81 min).