It was not so hard to understand why the forest of eyebrows shot up when Liverpool's assistant manager, Phil Thompson, declared that his team had tightened their hold on the top of the Premiership with "fantastic football."
The slate sky above Anfield had, after all, refused to take on a red glow after Michael Owen and Patrik Berger had beaten the substitute goalkeeper Marlon Beresford from long range, and despite the repair work of Sir Alex Ferguson's much lamented ramrod Steve McClaren, Middlesbrough are still a long way from an acid test of championship credentials.
But in one very important sense Thompson was right. The football of Liverpool was fantastic. It squeezed the life out of Boro, who had conceded just three goals in their previous six games, with its sheer honesty. Four days after neutralising the world-class skills of Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta in Rome's Olympic stadium, and with Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey on the bench, Liverpool again signalled their willingness to run for ever. Off the ball, particularly, they did it with a rampant collective intelligence.
With Owen moving into the astonishingly consistent work pattern of a Jimmy Greaves, and who knows, that of even Dixie Dean might just be around the corner, and Jari Litmanen again giving notice of his lightly used sophistication, the title-challenging package could scarcely have bulged more impressively. Those who say that Liverpool are doggedly unambitious in their use of the ball were, it is true, still not short of compelling evidence, but if Gérard Houllier's team remains a work in progress, you have to say that some of it is stupendous – and in the most vital area of shaping a genuinely competitive team.
It is in the area of the heart. Here, Liverpool are plainly out on their own. McClaren admitted that his team had been given nothing: no hope, no incentive, no beginnings of a comfort zone from which they could begin to exert their own game. But then it is also true that there was never a suggestion that Boro would lay down in the face of the inevitable. Gareth Southgate, particularly, was in an obdurate frame of mind and if Paul Ince, along with all his team-mates, was eventually consumed by the legs of Danny Murphy, Dietmar Hamann, Berger and even the elderly Gary McAllister, he refused to go quietly.
What we were left with was a well-organised Boro team incapable of matching opponents displaying a much superior will. It might not have been the last word in football entertainment, but anyone who did not recognise potential champions were simply not paying attention.
Owen of course represents, ever more surely, the hard edge of that title-winning possibility. Nowadays, it is enough for him to turn on the ball to induce panic. His goal, interestingly, had its source in a rare moment of spontaneity by the workhorse Murphy. He played his way out of his box, not without risk, before setting up the move which ended with Litmanen neatly flicking the ball into Owen's path for a shot from the England man which bristled with confidence and venom. Owen's goals, 20 of them have come in his last 20 games for Liverpool, and his 100th for the club is likely to coincide with his 22nd birthday this week, are inevitable now. They are the most natural extension of his journey on to the field. Everybody knows it.
Beresford, who had replaced Mark Crossley, taken off for eight stitches to a head wound after bravely challenging McAllister for a dangerously impish cross from Owen, had no more of a chance of stopping the shot of Berger which wrapped up the game for Liverpool on half-time as he had with Owen's assault. The rest was a formality dictated by sheer work ethic. Liverpool hustled for every ball.
Thompson said: "We're a bloody good team capable of exceptional football, and what delights me more than anything is the players' willingness to work for each other. Gary McAllister was running around like a young lad at the end. How Manchester or Arsenal are doing doesn't come into our thinking. We know what we have to do. I'm in total contact with Gérard now. We have a structure which we keep to, and I'm not daft enough to veer away from it. I'm extremely pleased with the way the lads finished. There are no big-heads out there."
As we were saying, the most relevant measurements were to be made in the heart department. There, no one was more impressive than the big Norwegian John Arne Riise. Long before the end, Jonathan Greening, Middlesbrough's former Old Trafford starlet, looked like someone who had gone to the beach for a picnic and found instead a Viking raiding party. Greening's job had been to give his team width along the right. It was a task obliterated by Riise's ferocious agenda of running until all resistance had been broken.
That was pretty much the entire Liverpool work-plan, which, you may say, is reason enough for the complaints of the purists. Maybe so, but they could be wasting their breath. Arsenal may be playing some lovely stuff, but in one vital department they cannot claim to be ahead of currently their most serious rivals. Liverpool, quite literally, have worked their way the top and it is going to take a mighty effort to dislodge them. Creative flair, unsupported by a labour battalion, will not be nearly enough.
Goals: Owen (27) 1-0; Berger (45) 2-0.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek 5; Carragher 5, Henchoz 6, Hyypia 6, Riise 8; Murphy 6, Hamann 6, McAllister 6, Berger 6; Litmanen 7, Owen 8 (Heskey 5, 81). Substitutes not used: Gerrard, Kirkland (gk), Biscan, Wright.
Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Crossley 5 (Beresford 4, 19); Cooper 5, Southgate 7, Ehiogu 6, Queudrue 4; Greening 4, Ince 6, Mustoe 4, Johnston 4 (Wilson 5, h-t); Nemeth 4 (Ricard 3, h-t), Boksic 5. Substitutes not used: Okon, Gavin.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury) 5.
Bookings: Middlesbrough: Queudrue, Cooper.
Man of the match: Riise.
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