Murphy's steel settles Liverpool nerves

Liverpool 2 Middlesbrough 0
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The Independent Football

Just as it seemed Aston Villa might deal their fragile self-esteem another critical blow by leapfrogging them into fourth place in the Premiership, Liverpool heeded Gerard Houllier's demand to put analysis to one side and seized the result required to remain favourites to take the last Champions' League spot.

It was not a particularly impressive performance, more one of fits and starts than consistently fluid movement. But after an energetic start to the first half had yielded nothing, a similar opening to the second period produced the dividend of two goals in the space of three minutes, which was sufficient to consign Middlesbrough to a third consecutive defeat.

For the second time in nine days it fell to Danny Murphy to rise nervelessly to the challenge of putting Liverpool in front. Having had the courage to step up and convert a match-winning penalty against Manchester United at Old Trafford, Murphy was the man on the spot again when Chris Riggott's foul on Michael Owen four minutes after the break offered Liverpool a chance they could not afford to miss.

Aware by then that Villa had beaten Tottenham, the Liverpool crowd collectively held its breath, their side's dismal record from penalty kicks this season all too readily coming to mind. Murphy's bottle remained intact, however, and his technique sound, Mark Schwarzer diving the right way but unable to make a save.

He had placed the kick in the same spot as the one that had beaten Tim Howard at Old Trafford, although he revealed afterwards that he had almost changed his mind. "I know it is dangerous to do that but Schwarzer is a big lad and I knew I had to put it right in the corner," he said. "Luckily I got it right."

Where Owen, Steven Gerrard, Emile Heskey and El-Hadji Diouf all have failures to their name this season, Murphy's record from the spot is three out of three. If Liverpool do manage to salvage their season by meeting the board's apparent minimum demand of manager Houllier, then Murphy may be the player the Frenchman will salute.

Their anxiety calmed after failing miserably to score in their two preceding home games, Liverpool then joyously doubled their advantage, hitting Middlesbrough hard before they could fashion a response. Harry Kewell fed a sharp ball into Owen's stride in the box and though the England striker could not stay on his feet, he cleverly managed to touch the ball to Heskey, who drilled it home.

The goals rewarded Houllier's judgment in the changes he made at half-time, when he sent on Heskey to lend weight to his attack and switched Kewell, who had started alongside Owen, to the left of midfield. Vladimir Smicer, whom Heskey replaced, had tweaked a knee, but tinkering had been required anyway.

As it happens, Steve Finnan, who had replaced Stephane Henchoz in another injury-enforced change, supplied the pass for which Owen was challenging when Riggott brought him down. Steve McClaren, the Middlesbrough manager, felt the decision was "harsh" and suggested the crowd's reaction influenced referee Andy D'Urso, although television replays confirmed that Owen was fouled, even though the striker was clearly not anxious to stay on his feet.

Until then, there had seemed every danger that the afternoon would end in frustration for Liverpool again after the defeat to Charlton and the goalless draw with Fulham. Kewell had gone close in the early stages, twice bringing good saves from Schwarzer and Owen hit a post after frustratingly putting another chance over the bar. But after that the ideas seemed to run out and although Kewell headed a Gerrard free-kick into the net after 35 minutes, he was denied by an offside flag.

Middlesbrough had rarely threatened to disturb Jerzy Dudek, although the Polish goalkeeper had to make a good reaction stop to deny Joseph Desire Job. "We played some good football but our finishing did not match it," McClaren said.

The result maintains Liverpool's one-point lead over Aston Villa, who are two points in front of Newcastle, although Sir Bobby Robson's side have a game in hand. Newcastle's visit to Anfield on the last Saturday of the season is to Liverpool's advantage but Villa, who travel to Southampton and then, a week before the FA Cup final, face Manchester United at home, might trump them both if Liverpool do not first win at Birmingham on Saturday.

"Until we scored the goals, I felt we were a bit nervous," Houllier said. "We settled down after that but it was more important to keep the lead than look for a third goal. We have been in fourth place for a long time and I can assure you the players will give every ounce of sweat and blood to keep it now."

Goals: Murphy pen (49) 1-0; Heskey (52) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek 6; Carragher 7, Henchoz 5 (Finnan 6, h-t), Hyypia 6, Riise 5; Smicer 5 (Heskey 6, h-t), Gerrard 7, Hamann 5, Murphy 6; Kewell 6, Owen 6. Substitutes not used: Luzi Bernardi (gk), Baros, Cheyrou.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer 7; Mills 6, Ehiogu 6, Riggott 5 (Downing 6, 74), Queudrue 5; Mendieta 6, Boateng 6, Greening 5, Zenden 4; Job 6 (Ricketts, 82), Maccarone 5 (Nemeth 5, 74). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Bates.

Referee: A D'Urso (Essex) 7.

Bookings: Liverpool: Gerrard. Middlesbrough: Mills.

Man of the match: Carragher.

Attendance: 42,031.