It gets no better for Rafael Benitez. A third consecutive draw may have taken Liverpool back into fourth place, above Everton, but joy at that will be confined. Not only do Liverpool remain 12 points adrift of the top, this was another of those performances that infuriate fans. Unadventurous and sterile, and deservedly trailing to George Boateng's first Middlesbrough goal of the season, Fernando Torres came to Liverpool's rescue with his 17th since he swapped Madrid for Anfield.
A pinged drive from 25 yards that flew in off the inside of the post, Torres' goal was as exquisite as it was unexpected. It came in the 71st minute and until then Liverpool offered very, very little. It was Liverpool's first goal here since 2002 and, in one sense, was worth the wait. Otherwise this was a forgettable afternoon for the visitors.
"In this position you cannot think about the leaders," said a downbeat Benitez. "I'm disappointed, we started really well and had [Steven] Gerrard's chance but we were not controlling the game. I was disappointed but there was a massive difference in the second half and in the last 30 minutes we were attacking all the time.
"That was the only positive thing – sometimes a draw away from home can look positive but, especially when you want to reduce the gap and want to be closer, you have to bedisappointed."
In his defence Benitez did not bleat about two late opportunities, one when Sami Hyypia had a near-post flick booted off the line by Mark Schwarzer, the other when Gerrard's bending shot shivered the woodwork with Schwarzer beaten. Given that both efforts came after the fourth official had raised the board to show three minutes added time, this was last-gasp stuff, not the building ofpressure.
The half-time introduction of Ryan Babel altered Liverpool's approach. With John Arne Riise moved back, Babel seized the left flank and, though erratic, caused Boro enough problems with his sheer vitality to change the rhythm of the match which after the opening 10 minutes, had been set by Boro. Julio Arca, arguably their best player, was suspended, but Fabio Rochemback raises his game for this sort of occasion.
The stadium was almost full and while Boro's form has been in and out, there is enough talent and intent in Gareth Southgate's squad to stimulate the locals. A strong debut from 19-year-old left-back Jonathan Grounds emphasised that.
Gerrard did rattle Schwarzer with an 11th-minute shot but thereafter, with Gary O'Neil again shining on the right flank and Stewart Downing purposeful on the left, it was Boro who dictated.
When, 26 minutes in, Boateng swivelled in midfield, he took Gerrard and Javier Mascherano out of the play. Showing composure and vision, Boateng wafted the ball wide to Downing who immediately made ground.
Downing, the subject of renewed interest from Tottenham, swung a cross to the far post, which O'Neil won above Alvaro Arbeloa; O'Neil's header took the ball back across the six-yard box. Pepe Reina was flummoxed, Tuncay headed it back and Boateng, who had maintained his run, poked the ball in from two yards.
Worth their lead, Boro were justifiably holding on to it. Babel made a difference but four minutes before Torres struck, the points should all have been the home team's.
When O'Neil's clever diagonal pass released Tuncay in the box it seemed the Turk would shoot first time. But he paused, doubled-back and teed up Downing. Twelve yards out, Downing smacked a fine shot beyond Reina only to see it cannon back off the post.
"I think we were good value and had that second gone in, we would have all the points," Southgate said.
"But then you look at who scored their goal and I think he cost the same as our entire 16. That was the only time he was given that sort of space because our centre-halves and our midfield played really well today.
"We lost Jonathan Woodgate this morning and Emmanuel Pogatetz yesterday. In the circumstances it was a fantastic performance and, in front of our biggest crowd of the season, that was important."Reuse content