Familiar feeling for Benitez as Europe effect hurts Liverpool

Liverpool 1 - Middlesbrough 1
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The Independent Football

A sign on the Middlesbrough team coach could have summed up the Liverpool manager's mood. "It's a great day," it read, "until some bastard spoils it."

Rafael Benitez's day has been spoilt on a frequent basis recently. Liverpool's players, giants in the Champions' League, vertically challenged in the Premiership, are an enigma.

"After Champions' League games we don't win," Benitez said, pointing to 11 such occasions this season. "From the first minute some of them seemed tired but you can't change the players then. We worked hard, particularly in the second half, but that period lasted only 20 minutes.

"I said six months ago that the squad is not big enough. When you play one game a week it's easy to prepare but when you play two games, always at maximum level, it's more difficult. It's not a problem of money, it's a question of finding hungry players."

Benitez is not the first manager to find it difficult to fight on more than one front. Middlesbrough's form went through the floor when they were still in the Uefa Cup, but now Steve McClaren has realistic hopes of qualifying for Europe again.

For the first half at least, they looked likely to prevail. Szilard Nemeth had confounded the hopeless Mauricio Pellegrino - the Argentinian centre-half was withdrawn at half-time with dizziness - to put Boro ahead after four minutes.

Even after the interval - "We expected an onslaught and we got one," McClaren said - the Middlesbrough defence, with Gareth Southgate confounding the pain of a head wound to play a supreme part, was resilient and it required a spectacular goal from Steven Gerrard to pierce them.

While the England midfielder's form has been patchy, his commitment and work-rate have not. His goal, a beautifully struck drive from 25 yards that curled into the top corner, was a fine retort to his critics.

If anyone is going to spoil Chelsea's day tomorrow, Gerrard the Liverpool captain is the man most likely to do so.

Goals: Nemeth (4) 0-1; Gerrard (52) 1-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Finnan, Carragher, Pellegrino (Garcia, h-t), Warnock (Hamann, 84); Nuñez (Cissé, 73), Gerrard, Alonso, Riise; Kewell, Morientes. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Hyypia.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2) Jones; Davies, Ehiogu, Southgate, Quedrue; Parlour (Parnaby, 78), Doriva, Boateng, Zenden; Nemeth (Downing, 62), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Knight (gk), Reiziger, Morrison.

Bookings: Liverpool Nuñez, Garcia; Middlesbrough Doriva, Zenden .

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Man of the match: Southgate.

Attendance: 42,250.