Football: Sweet smell of success for Ince

Middlesbrough 1 Liverpool 0 Deane 49 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 34,783
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HIS DEPARTURE from Anfield might have left Paul Ince with a bitter taste in his mouth, but he left the Riverside last night with the sweet smell of success in his nostrils after a powerful performance which anchored Middlesbrough's hard-fought victory over his old club.

But of all the midfielders the England manager Kevin Keegan was running his eye over - Ince, Paul Gascoigne, Jamie Redknapp - it was a German, Christian Ziege, being watched by his country's assistant manager, who was the most complete performer. Teaming up to good effect with Keith O'Neill down Middlesbrough's left, the pounds 4m acquisition from Milan provided any number of tantalising crosses which might have been converted. Only one was, when Brian Deane slid the ball home in the 48th minute, but it was enough to defeat Liverpool who, for all Titi Camara's trickery, could not convert their chances.

And for Gascoigne, it was another entry in his graveyard of last chances. From the start, Steven Gerrard relished the opportunity to out-Gazza Gazza at every turn, but the opportunity was soon gone. After 15 minutes of lethargy, Gascoigne succumbed to a centre-circle challenge from Redknapp. For a few minutes he soldiered sorrowfully on until being substituted, his England dreams dissipating along with his talent.

"He's suffered severe bruising in his calf and it is disappointing because his fitness is good," said Bryan Robson, the Boro manager. "I thought Incey was outstanding. He was nice and controlled all game and as Liverpool pressured us in the last 15 minutes, he was winning tackles and passing well."

Gerard Houllier neatly side-stepped the Ince question which was more than Dominic Matteo could do after just 180 seconds. Ince, such a model of self-restraint that he had to prevent himself from hitting Houllier as he left Anfield, did not resist temptation yesterday and, although he had not previously committed a foul all season, he rapidly went in with dangerously high studs on Matteo.

Houllier, accused by Ince of lacking dignity, class and decency, was at least respectful enough to replace the injured Vladimir Smicer, a winger, with Steve Staunton, a defender. This five-man defence was designed to deny space to Boro's midfield trio of Ince, Gascoigne and Andy Townsend, who between them brought 98 years of experience to a game whose subplots inevitably gave it a malevolent undercurrent.

It surfaced in ugly style on the half-hour when Phil Stamp was grounded on the right by Gerrard's vicious flying feet. Inevitably Ince, who had exacted immediate revenge on Redknapp for his part in Gascoigne's downfall, was quickly on the scene as was Fowler, already simmering from an early encounter with Hamilton Ricard. Gianluca Festa appeared to throw a punch in Fowler's direction but yellow cards followed only for Townsend and Gerrard, who can count himself a very fortunate young man.

By then, Liverpool should have been ahead. Camara's stuttering run in the 11th minute unnerved Middlesbrough and he slipped Fowler in behind Gary Pallister. The England striker's wide finish was disappointing, but Boro were even more concerned when, barely a minute later, Vegard Heggem also got the wrong side of their rearguard. He was hamfistedly dealt with by Steve Vickers.

"I thought Liverpool were really up for it, sprinting up to us and closing us down," said Robson. "That's why they dropped off in the second half - because they had put so much into the first."

It might also have been because Gascoigne's replacement, O'Neill, allowed Ziege to rampage forward so effectively. Four minutes after half-time, the two players retrieved the ball after Ricard had tangled with Sami Hyypia and Ziege crossed for Deane to score.

"I'm very disappointed for the players because they deserved more than they got," said Houllier. "The first half was outstanding and we were on top of them and my only regret is that we didn't finish our chances. For the second game, we didn't have the clinical efficiency we should have had and ironically that is supposed to be our main force."

For Houllier, whose predicament is only one place above that of Ruud Gullit, Michael Owen cannot return too soon. Liverpool's best chance came just three minutes from the end - a ricochet from Redknapp reached Fowler via Erik Meijer's thigh but his finish from the edge of the area was way off the mark by his own high standards.