Liverpool 2 Middlesbrough 0: Morientes a sign of Rafa's new times

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The Independent Online

Imagine. It seems appropriate to borrow from one of this city's most lamented sons, John Lennon, in this of all weeks. Certainly, Liverpool can start doing so now. Imagine, that is, securing the World Club Championship in Tokyo, for which they depart today. But, more intrigu-ingly, imagine transforming a Premiership walkover into at least a two-horse affair again.

Two goals from Fernando Morientes, only his second and third this season - the latter vehemently contested as offside by Boro - were sufficient to edge Liverpool into second place behind Chelsea, and instigate talk of that almost forgotten word on Merseyside, the championship.

The manager, Rafael Benitez, was having none of it. "We will think about that after Japan," he said. "It's good to see the team at the top of the table, but when we return we have four games in eight days [over the festive period], and everything can change in a week."

His counterpart was more than willing to speak for him, however, when asked if he believed Liverpool had reignited their title claims. "I do now," said the Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren. "Winning the European Champions' League brings a certain confidence and belief. There's an air about them at the moment. That sequence of clean sheets gives them a great platform."

Liverpool's progress has been established principally because they possess a rearguard as mean as thieves stealing from the church collection plate. Their 10-game unblemished defensive record now equals a club record which extends back to 1987-88 and the days of Alan Hansen and Ronnie Whelan. It is more than 15 hours since they have conceded a goal. David Davis was still the likely Tory leader when Liverpool last let in a goal, in the Carling Cup defeat at Crystal Palace.

One of their current stalwarts, Sami Hyypia, who finished with his head bandaged but, unlike Basil Fawlty, had no need to mention a war, such was the impotence of Boro's attack, reflected: "It's not just the defence. It's easy at the back for us because the strikers and midfield are doing their job properly."

Such a defensive run as the home side have enjoyed, though, does require a touch of fortune. Liverpool had two such moments yesterday when their otherwise unemployed goalkeeper, Jose Reina, saved with his legs, first from Mark Viduka and then James Morrison, either side of the first goal.

The first half had been a moribund one, with the visitors effectively stifling Benitez's team, Mark Schwarzer palming over a Morientes header and Matthew Bates clearing off the line from Peter Crouch. It was the 39th minute before Boro's first attempt, if you can call Gareth Southgate's hopeful effort from distance that. Though they began the second period with a rather more adventurous spirit, their attitude hardly commended them to the objective spectator.

Eighteen minutes from time, with Crouch replaced by Djibril Cissé and Hyypia off the pitch being treated for that head wound, Liverpool finally broke through. Steven Gerrard linked with Luis Garcia, who swept the ball in from the right, for Morientes to divert the ball wide of Schwarzer. Five minutes later, Jamie Carragher's long ball forward was headed unwittingly backwards by Frank Queudrue, and Morientes pounced to lob over the stranded Boro goalkeeper. McClaren later claimed, with some justification, that Morientes was offside.

The Boro manager was equally dismayed by the dismissal, seven minutes from time, of his midfielder Chris Riggott for a second bookable defence. That challenge on Gerrard was ill-timed yet in no way malicious, but the referee Steve Bennett - seemingly in benign mood, having earlier only brandished yellow cards following a reckless challenge by Momo Sissoko on Matthew Bates, who responded by pushing his assailant in the chest - took draconian action.

"I expressed my disappointment to the referee. The decision was made too hastily," insisted McClaren. "We got nothing today." He had some justification for his annoyance, but this was always Liverpool's day. Who knows, in the Premiership, it could still be their season.

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