Middlesbrough 1 Liverpool 1: Liverpool lose the plot amid headlines and intrigue
Monday 14 January 2008
What does it reveal of the state of Liverpool and the status of Newcastle United that a man of Sami Hyypia's experience, a 34-year-old into his ninth season at Anfield, could say the following after this latest strange performance from Rafael Benitez's side? "The players hope, if there are some arguments, that they can be sorted out. We seem to be becoming like Newcastle. Every time we pick up a paper, there seems to be something new."
In itself, this 70 minutes of vague football followed by 20 minutes of frantic and incoherent attack, was not enough to provoke such an opinion. It is the accumulation of factors.
A third consecutive draw is one of them. It leaves Liverpool, just over halfway through the League campaign, 33-1 to win their first title since 1990, and you can get longer odds if you search. Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City have the same points (39) and it is Villa at Anfield a week today. Twelve points behind Manchester United and Arsenal, Liverpool are now closer in points to 10th-placed West Ham than third-placed Chelsea.
Then there were Saturday morning's headlines. These showed again that Benitez's job had been offered to Jürgen Klinsmann before the German picked Bayern Munich. Liverpool's American owners have done Benitez no favours and if he is furious on a personal level with them it is fully justified. Because on a professional level they have winded Benitez. Badly.
Is that why, after a breezy opening 11 minutes, Liverpool drifted, then barely moved for an hour? Players of the dynamism of Steven Gerrard were listless, Fernando Torres was not being given a kick. As Hyypia said, the players read the papers and know there are "some arguments". We may say it should not affect players on the pitch; but only they know if it does.
It feels as if only a sudden rush of victories could save this situation. Liverpool do possess a template of how that can happen, as in the last 20 minutes, with Ryan Babel introduced on the left to stretch a previously compact Middlesbrough with his pace and energy, there was an urgency that offered hope.
Torres' goal, his 17th of the season, came in the 71st minute and was beautiful to behold, a diamond strike from 25 yards on the run that zipped in off the inside of Mark Schwarzer's right-hand post.
But there has to be a will to play that way from kick-off and, from what we know of Benitez, that is not his philosophy. Away from home it is all about the counter-attack, even against sides as brittle in confidence as Boro.
It has hardly been a smooth few months for Gareth Southgate either – he has had a run-in with scorer, and friend, George Boateng – but at least Southgate knows he has the club's chairman, Steve Gibson, on his side. "Crackers," was Southgate's assessment of the climate of pressure, "so it doesn't surprise me. Clearly his [Benitez's] record is outstanding. "
Goals: Boateng (26) 1-0; Torres (71) 1-1.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Young, Huth, Wheater, Grounds; O'Neil, Boateng, Rochemback, Downing; Tuncay, Aliadière (Hutchinson, 74). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Riggott, Lee, Johnson.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Arbeloa (Babel, h-t); Benayoun (Alonso, 59) Mascherano, Gerrard, Riise; Voronin (Kuyt, 75) Torres. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Agger.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Middlesbrough Huth; Liverpool Alonso.
Man of the match: O'Neil.
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