Negative Liverpool count the positives

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The Independent Online

Relations between Middlesbrough and Liverpool are so frosty after the Christian Ziege affair that the last thing needed was for the Anfield side to make more unfair gains at Boro's expense. If Steve Gibson's fight for compensation does reach the High Court, the chairman may be tempted to throw this result into the melting pot for good measure.

Not that there was anything illegal about Liverpool's approach on this occasion. It was merely the outcome that seemed a crime. Liverpool made no more than half a dozen chances and scored twice, Middlesbrough, from perhaps three times as many, converted only one. It did not matter to Phil Thompson, of course. After rebutting Barcelona's accusations of negativity after the goalless draw in Nou Camp last week, Liverpool's assistant manager is turning sniper fire to his own advantage.

Liverpool have won seven of their last eight in the Premiership and Thompson will not care if the seven still to come are replicas of this one, if the outcome is the same. He was ready to be criticised as soon as the first post-match interviewer thrust a microphone under his nose and had his "no apologies" response already prepared. His only regret, he said, was having conceded a goal, the first in six hours and 19 minutes and only a third in 10 games.

It was no more than Middlesbrough deserved, however. Liverpool may be happy to counter attack -- as they have shown in winning 11 times away from home this season -- but they were forced into it, to an extent, by the dynamism of the home side, who have themselves been labelled as boring but, unlike their opponents, seem to have taken it to heart.

Benito Carbone delighted the Riverside with his inventiveness, even if it did not always come off, Alen Boksic, as usual, exuded high quality and Paul Ince, whose discarding by Liverpool in 1999 still hurts, rose to the occasion with all-round magnificence. Then there was Luke Wilkshire, at the opposite end of the experience scale. The 20-year-old Australian added a dimension to Middlesbrough's football that took Liverpool by surprise.

Indeed, finishing was Middlesbrough's only shortcoming, in contrast to Liverpool, who were simply ruthless. They had been out of their half only four times, to any effect, when Emile Heskey fired them in front, after fine play by Nicolas Anelka and an unnoticed run by Dietmar Hamann. Boro tried in vain for an equaliser before being punished again, six minutes from time, when the home defence left a hole, Heskey flicked the ball into it and John Arne Riise buried a rapier shot to Mark Schwarzer's left. Gareth Southgate's goal came too late for the home side.

Steven Gerrard, left on the bench on Saturday, will start in the Champions' League decider against Roma on Tuesday, as might Michael Owen, given more time to get his hamstring right. Just do not expect it to be fun.

Goals: Heskey (33) 0-1; Riise (84) 0-2; Southgate (89) 1-2.

Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer 6; Stockdale 5 (Marinelli, 81), Festa 6, Southgate 7, Queudrue 8; Wilkshire 7 (Nemeth 5, 72), Ince 8, Mustoe 6 (Gavin 4, 72,), Greening 5; Carbone 7, Boksic 6. Substitutes not used: Windass, Crossley (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek 5; Abel Xavier 5, Henchoz 6, Hyypia 6, Carragher 7; Smicer 6 (Gerrard 5, 70), Murphy 4, Hamann 6, Riise 7; Heskey 8, Anelka 7. Substitutes not used: Arphexad (gk), Barmby, McAllister, Litmanen.

Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay) 5.

Bookings: Liverpool: Henchoz, Hamann.

Man of the match: Paul Ince.

Attendance: 31,253.