Efficiency drives Liverpool upwards

Middlesbrough 1 Liverpool 2
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Other than the result, there was little in Liverpool's performance to identify them compellingly as potential champions but then at this stage of the season perhaps quality matters less than who takes the points.

Middlesbrough, who played well for long periods, might consider themselves unfortunate but found themselves beaten by a team equipped with the ruthlessness they lacked. It was this that enabled Liverpool to make so few chances count for so much.

Surprised by the energy with which Middlesbrough went at them, almost from start to finish, Liverpool, for whom Michael Owen was again missing, were restricted to counter-attacks and could muster only a handful of those. And yet when opportunity came their way, their efficiency, at least, set them apart.

In the end, it was just as well. Leading through Emile Heskey's 33rd-minute opener, they had to wait until six minutes from time to add to that advantage, when John Arne Riise punished a defence trying to aid the quest for an equaliser. Given that the home side's endeavours did bring them a reward in the closing moments, the Norwegian's clinical finish turned out to be the difference between one point and three.

"We can play much better than that," Phil Thompson, Liverpool's assistant manager, said. "But I'm making no apologies. We've come back from a hard game in Europe and sometimes you have to dig deep. In those circumstances there is nobody better in the Premiership." It was a view with which Steve McClaren, his opposite number, concurred, lamenting his side's failure to turn their possession into more than Gareth Southgate's headed goal.

Convinced Boro need 42 points to be safe, a positive result from an unremarkable display would have better suited his purpose, too. After only two defeats in 13 games, however, it would be a surprise if it all went wrong now.

At times yesterday, they attacked with such verve it might have been they who were about to climb to the top of the table. In Benito Carbone they had flair, in Alen Boksic class, in Franck Queudrue and Luke Wilkshire, a 20-year-old Australian making his second appearance, an exhilarating energy and self-belief. And then there was Paul Ince, driving everything.

Ince twice went close against his old club, low shots grazing the post on each occasion. Queudrue had a header cleared off the line and Wilkshire shot wide when he should have been on target, although the errors were forgivable in one so new.

But until Southgate, left unmarked by central defenders who had been flawless to that point, headed home Carlos Marinelli's cross for his first Middlesbrough goal, nothing went in. "We had 17 chances and scored one goal," McClaren moaned. "They must have had three and scored two." It was more like five, actually, but the conversion rate was no less impressive for that.

When Vladimir Smicer led the break that brought the first goal, Middlesbrough made their first serious mistake, allowing Dietmar Hamann space on the right and failing to spot him even after Smicer chose to pass to Nicolas Anelka on the left. The Frenchman, having taken out three defenders with one drop of the shoulder, found Hamann with a deft cross and although the German missed his own chance to score Heskey was at hand to bury the loose ball.

Heskey had a key role in Liverpool's second goal, flicking the substitute Steven Gerrard's pass wide to an unmarked Riise, who drilled the ball low to Mark Schwarzer's left.