Liverpool 2 Middlesbrough 0: Benitez's revolution showing signs of threatening Chelsea

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The Independent Online

Liverpool may still be some way from being described comfortably as the Premiership's blossoming flower, but a spiky cactus, fierce and resilient and with a growing capacity to draw blood, well, that's an entirely different matter.

Having picked up again his habit of exposing Chelsea's limitations, and heading them in Champions' League qualification for the knock-out phase, the other Special One, the European Cup-winning Rafa Benitez, was a shoo-in for manager of the month. This, however, is beginning to look like a mere deposit on the honouring of a man who, with only a fraction of Mourinho's resources, is already well down the road of a truly remarkable revolution.

Such a juxtaposition of circumstances seemed remote when Chelsea ripped through Liverpool at Anfield earlier this season. But Liverpool have grown imposingly strong at that broken place.

Benitez's staunchest lieutenant, Jamie Carragher, was quick to underline his manager's basic strength after the team's 10th straight clean sheet and a seventh successive Premiership win. Benitez, he said, was involved in the game's oldest pattern of success: getting things right at the back, then developing the rest of the team with the confidence that flows from defensive security.

That process was luminous in the second half, when Liverpool moved into a much higher class as they put away the commendably dogged Middlesbrough far more convincingly than had the Premiership leaders seven days earlier at Stamford Bridge.

Middlesbrough's manager, Steve McClaren, threw up a smokescreen when he said that the referee, Steve Bennett, had been the most decisive presence with two result-changing decisions, but reality lay elsewhere.

The official may have been harsh in handing two yellow cards to the generally impressive Chris Riggott, but the second came after Fernando Morientes had delivered a second sword stroke and confirmed an edge that was growing with almost every kick. That second goal was the cause of McClaren's other complaint, that Morientes was two yards offside when the ball flew to him off the head of Franck Queudrue. Much more relevant was the fact that Morientes only became active when Carragher's lofted downfield ball was played by the Boro man. When the smoke cleared, the truth for Liverpool was as inspiring as the bravest sight at Anfield for many a day: the bandaged head of Sami Hyppia soaring above the rest to clear his lines.

Hyppia is supposed to be on his last legs, but from somewhere he produced a performance that took us back to his prime. Benitez will no doubt still make a central defender one of his targets in the January transfer window, but on this form from Hyppia as cover more than as a desperately needed replacement.

A ball-winning midfielder with a little more in the way of creativity than Momo Sissoko might also be on the Benitez order form, but the man from Mali was effective enough to put the item into the luxury shopping category.

What isn't in doubt, even though they are 12 points behind Chelsea - with a game in hand - is that Benitez's boys are beginning to look tempting at 25-1 to stage a Premiership title upset.

Bearing in mind the frustration Boro caused to the leaders on their own ground last week - and Chelsea's most recent labourings against Wigan - this was maybe Liverpool's most significant Premiership performance. Benitez's entire philosophy was compressed into the 90 minutes.

Earnest but not devastating in the first half, Liverpool slowly shredded the ambition of a Middlesbrough side who twice, through Mark Viduka and James Morrison, brought Jose Reina to impressive attention.

Then Liverpool began to play football of a depth and an invention far from visible in Chelsea's recent performances. Said Benitez: "Morientes, like everybody else in the team, has been working hard.

"[Peter] Crouch scored last week, now Morientes in this game. It shows that if you keep working, doing the same things again and again, it will come right."

It is coming so right for Liverpool that privately Benitez can only curse the need to fly to Tokyo for the distraction of a World Club Championship that is utterly without virtue beyond the sound of the cash register. "We come back from Japan to face four games in eight days," says Benitez, "and things can change. But right now we are in a good situation, and we will just have to work even harder."

The appetite for such endeavour, plainly, has been well established. So is the sense of a team stirring a strong belief in their own possibilities. Steven Gerrard produced one of his more vital performances and, as always, Xabi Alonso gave the midfield a flowing coherence that made the fruitful second half seem almost inevitable. There was also a glimpse of the Harry Kewell who was once the toast of Elland Road - and one of the Premiership's most creative performers.

None of this has created convulsions in the betting market - or the weight of critical opinion. Against Liverpool's 25-1, Chelsea's increasing reliance on the set-piece scoring interventions of John Terry - and a non-corresponding lack of initiative and execution from other parts of the attack - has not exactly softened the bookmaking belief that they will cruise home for a second straight title. Chelsea remain 1-20 favourites, which on current form amounts to almost a restraint of trade. Liverpool, on the other hand, offer more than a touch of adventure. They are growing before our eyes.

Goals: Morientes (71) 1-0; (76) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko, Kewell (Cisse, 83); Crouch (Garcia, 67), Morientes (Josemi, 87). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Warnock.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Bates, Riggott, Southgate, Queudrue; Morrison (Hasselbaink, 75), Doriva, Rochemback, Boeteng; Yakuba, (Ehiogu, 86), Viduka. Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Pogatetz, Johnson.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent) .

Booked: Liverpool Sissoko. Middlesbrough Riggott, Bates. Sent off Riggott.

Man of the match: Morientes.

Attendance: 43,510.

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