Defensive values catapult Boro towards summit

Middlesbrough 2 - Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online

As his team closed in on the top of the table, Chris Riggott turned in another dominating performance at the heart of a defence that has conceded just 19 goals in 20 games this season, a statistic that includes the five shipped against Arsenal on the second weekend.

As his team closed in on the top of the table, Chris Riggott turned in another dominating performance at the heart of a defence that has conceded just 19 goals in 20 games this season, a statistic that includes the five shipped against Arsenal on the second weekend.

He, like they, believe they have turned a corner: Riggott from young understudy to regular performer; Middlesbrough from mid-table also-rans to Champions' League contenders.

Riggott, 24, arrived at the Riverside in January 2003, but only now, thanks to Ugo Ehiogu's injury, has he cemented a place alongside Gareth Southgate.

He has played 17 of the 20 games, and just as he bemoaned his lack of goals in the programme - he had not added to the two against Sunderland 22 months ago - he volleyed home on Saturday from four yards.

Middlesbrough cemented fourth place in the table, and, in their first season in Europe, go to Villarreal on Thursday top of Uefa Cup Group E needing a point to progress. Then they face Spurs on Sunday, expecting to win a fourth consecutive away match in the top flight for the first time since 1950.

"It shows how our confidence has grown that we are now going into games against teams like Liverpool thinking we can win," Riggott said. "We are no longer hanging on, and afterwards we are asking about the other results from teams around our spot - at the top of the table."

Although only Arsenal and Newcastle have scored more goals, it is Boro's defence that is winning the points. That includes goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who produced a spell-blinding save at 1-0 to deny Harry Kewell, and young Tony McMahon who is unbeaten in all ten starts of his fledgling career.

"Look at the whole of our back four," said manager Steve McClaren. "Take McMahon: that was as mature a performance as I've seen from an 18-year-old. Riggott is consistently playing well, and you have the experience of Gareth Southgate to hold them all together."

In truth, strikerless Liverpool were easily contained. Up front, Kewell was a pale shadow of himself while Luis Garcia looked to be just chasing shadows. The Spaniard did have the ball in the net just before half-time but the linesman said he had struck it from an offside position.

"When you talk about how they play, I prefer to say did they do the things they must do - did they run, did they fight? And they did," said Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, defending his frontline.

It wasn't until Steven Gerrard arrived in the 56th minute that Liverpool mounted a sustained assault on Middlesbrough's vaunted defence.

Out for eight weeks, he quickly regained his range and assailed Boro from all angles.

"It is important for us that he plays about 40 minutes," Benitez said. "He's not in the best physical condition but he improves by playing." Gerrard was involved in the 72nd minute move that finished when Southgate took the ball off substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle's toe as he prepared to shoot. That protected the two goal lead created by Bolo Zenden's assured finish, and Boro's backline was barely troubled again.

Goals: Riggott (36) 1-0; Zenden (62) 2-0.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; McMahon, Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue; Parlour, Boateng, Zenden (Nemeth, 89), Downing; Viduka, Hasselbaink (Job, 86). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Doriva, Cooper.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Kirkland; Josemi (Sinama-Pongolle, 70), Carragher, Hyypia, Traoré; Riis, Alonso (Biscan, 83), Hamann (Gerrard, 56), Finnan; Luis Garcia, Kewell. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Mellor.

Referee: S Bennet (Kent).

Booked: Middlesbrough: Southgate. Liverpool: Hyypia, Josemi.

Man of the match: Schwarzer.

Attendance: 34,751.

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