'Europe our best bet' says Benitez

Middlesbrough 2 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online

"Clearly the Champions League is the best option we have now," he said. "Second would still be an achievement," he said. "You can learn to be ruthless but something like that takes time," he said. "Carragher told me he had heavy legs," he said.

As Rafael Benitez talked his way through the state of Liverpool after a result even worse than the performance, there was no direct concession of yet another League title to Manchester United but the statements above hardly required forensic dissection – except maybe that last one about Jamie Carragher. This was only Liverpool's second defeat of the season and it is only seven games since Liverpool were top of the League and rampant at Newcastle. But just two of them have been won and United's lead is now seven points; Liverpool are third. United have a game in hand and host Benitez & Co on Saturday week.

"You could almost say when we scored our second goal that it was the moment they lost the title," said Middlesbrough's young centre-half David Wheater. "It's Manchester United all the way, most people know that. They [Liverpool] will push them, but they won't win it." The clarity of Wheater contrasted with some of the mumbled responses from Benitez. The Spaniard was understandably irritated by poor finishing throughout from a side missing Fernando Torres, but January's sale of Robbie Keane for £8m less than Liverpool paid for him looked even more confusing on Saturday. Dirk Kuyt was the centre-forward but while the Dutchman had scored in Liverpool's previous two League games, he is not prolific and Benitez knows that. Last season after November, Kuyt went without scoring in the League.

Keane going, Kuyt on his own, these felt like miscalculations and four years and nine months since his appointment, Benitez must examine his squad and still find it unbalanced. Martin Skrtel, a centre-half playing right-back against an in-form Stewart Downing, personified this. Benitez can be opaque in his replies but he suggested Carragher had declined to play on the right. "Carragher told me he had heavy legs and so, as a centre-back, he could run less," Benitez said. "At right-back normally you run more, so he played at centre-half. That was the idea."

It was a compromised idea – and there was no handshake between Carragher and Benitez when Carragher was taken off – though in the first 16 minutes when Boro goalkeeper Brad Jones made three smart stops and the returning Steven Gerrard was free and creative, Liverpool appeared sound. But as opportunities withered, Downing's influence grew. It was the England winger's fast corner that cannoned off the unfortunate Xabi Alonso – after Skrtel appeared to duck out of a header.

On his own Gerrard did enough for his team-mates to get back in it but Downing's remark last week about Boro being unable to "carry passengers" sprang to mind as instead Tuncay Sanli made it 2-0 to a side that had not won for 14 League games or scored a goal in its previous five.

Liverpool host Sunderland at Anfield tomorrow night. That promises to be another tense occasion for Benitez. Having said that the Champions League is now the best chance of a trophy and with the following game being at home to Real Madrid, sceptical fans desperate for a League title will again scrutinise the 11 names on the teamsheet.

Goals: Alonso og (32) 1-0; Tuncay (63) 2-0.

Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1) Jones; Hoyte, Wheater, Huth, Pogatetz; O'Neil, Bates, Arca (Walker, 89) Downing; Tuncay (Johnson, 79); Aliadière (King, 68). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Taylor, Emnes, Alves.

Liverpool (4-4-1-1) Reina; Skrtel, Carragher (Benayoun, 72) Hyypia, Aurelio; El Zhar (Ngog, 68) Alonso, Mascherano, Babel; Gerrard (Lucas 77); Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Darby, Riera.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Middlesbrough Tuncay, Bates.

Man of the match: Downing.

Attendance: 33,724.