There are 11 games and three months of the Premier League season remaining but Liverpool's hopes of a first title since 1990 sloped out the door at Middlesbrough's Riverside stadium yesterday, writes Michael Walker. Manager Rafael Benitez did not concede the title to Manchester United after a punishing 2-0 defeat on Teesside but his demeanour suggested he has. Liverpool are seven points behind United, having played a game more, and Benitez said: "Before this game it was very difficult, after this game it's more difficult."
Benitez added that "it depends on United", but Sir Alex Ferguson's players must slip up repeatedly if Liverpool's dwindling chances are to regain momentum. They play at Old Trafford in a fortnight. On the ropes, Liverpool could be knocked out that day.
Offered the opportunity to make a rallying call to his players, a subdued Benitez declined. Liverpool, who had not lost in their previous 15 League games and had beaten Real Madrid in the Champions' League three days earlier, arrived at the Riverside knowing that a victory, allied to one over Sunderland at Anfield on Tuesday, could cut United's lead to a point before they go to Newcastle on Wednesday.
But despite having Steven Gerrard in the starting XI to compensate for the absence of Fernando Torres, Liverpool were unable to break down a Boro side scrapping for Premier League survival. Benitez bemoaned a failure to take chances in the opening half hour when Nabil El-Zhar, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel were each foiled by Boro's goalkeeper Brad Jones.
"Clearly you have to take your chances and in the first 30 minutes we had five chances," Benitez said. "That clearly has been a problem during the season and here it was the same."
There was no attempt to overstate the significance of chief executive Rick Parry's departure on Friday and Benitez was customarily cryptic when the topic of his next contract arose.
"My advisers are in contact with the advisers of the owners so maybe they will have a conversation and we will see if we can progress," he said.
After losing to a Middlesbrough side that had not scored in one of their previous five League games, Benitez's suitability for a new contract should be a conversation others have first.