At times, Liverpool's capers at the back were laughable but then they would break away, driven by the muscle of Paul Ince, the pace of Michael Owen and, especially towards the end, by the intelligence of Karlheinz Riedle and they looked a classic counter-attacking team.
Middlesbrough, though, appeared exhausted, as if ending their 68-year wait for victory at Old Trafford last weekend and carrying the burden of their 14-month unbeaten home run this weekend were taking their toll. As the second half wore on even their long, high balls aimed towards their rumbustious double-headed attack of Hamilton Ricard and Brian Deane lacked their previous potency, although if the former had converted the latter's 87th minute flick-on from Colin Cooper's huge free kick, the result would have been different.
For in the 88th minute, Vegard Heggem started on the right of Middlesbrough's area, waltzed around three defenders before sweetly scooping the ball over Mark Schwarzer for a sublime solo goal which sealed the result.
With Paul Gascoigne returning after a one-match ban and a trip to the barber, Middlesbrough started the brighter. Shaven-headed, Gascoigne drifted a dream of a ball on to the wind in the fourth minute. Gary Pallister and Jamie Carragher jumped and Neil Maddison hit the rebound just wide. But the hot-head Gascoigne was booked five minutes later for sliding in nastily on Robbie Fowler. Comic defending also helped Middlesbrough's cause. Still, Babb intercepted Andy Townsend's wind-blown cross in front of David James and headed it just wide, and then Ince's ludicrous back- header fell to Ricard. The Colombian's first touch deserted him as James threw himself desperately at his feet.
But Liverpool counter-attacked in classic fashion. Owen made a box-to- box dash which was ruined by Jamie Redknapp's mis-cue and then, in the 17th minute, a corner from Redknapp was headed back by Ince and Carragher toe-poked home.
But after the classic the comic returned. Gascoigne's long free kick reached Deane with Babb inexplicably grounded and James stranded mid-way between two minds. Unchallenged, Deane headed over the keeper to equalise.
Within two minutes, though, Liverpool were back in front and this time the egg was on Middlesbrough's faces. Owen accelerated past Pallister on to Patrik Berger's pass but Schwarzer saved fantastically as Owen tried to lift the ball over him. Schwarzer picked himself - and the ball - up, but as Pallister had touched the ball last, it was adjudged a back- pass. Ince touched the indirect free kick, which was two yards to the right of the penalty spot, and Redknapp emphatically fired it into the roof of the net.
Immediately after the interval Liverpool could have gone further ahead when Owen, perilously close to offside, pulled back to Fowler who shot horribly high. On the hour, Riedle replaced Fowler to provide an aerial threat to a defence who had lost Pallister at half-time. Booked in his first minutes, Riedle in his second nearly converted Berger's deep cross and in his third provided a perfect layback for Ince to blast over.
Then Ince burst through mid-field and fed Owen, who interchanged with Redknapp before being denied by Schwarzer. Three minutes later the goalkeeper did even better, diving full length to push away Stig Bjornebye's shot. And there was still Steve McManaman to come, the last 15 minutes being his first run out in six weeks.