Tuncay ends Liverpool's title dream

Middlesbrough 2 Liverpool 0: Benitez's men follow Madrid magic with lacklustre display to kill off League hopes as Turk pulls Boro out of drop zone
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Madrid? Yes. Middlesbrough? No. The frustrating contradiction that is Rafael Benitez's Liverpool was in evidence once again yesterday when three days after winning at the Bernabeu Stadium in the Champions League, Liverpool lost in meek fashion at the Riverside.

Middlesbrough had not won a Premier League game here since October, they had not won anywhere in the league in fact for 15 games and had not scored in any of their previous five league games - 526 minutes in total.

But when a Stewart Downing corner deflected off the left leg of Xavi Alonso in the 32nd minute yesterday, Boro were on their way out of the relegation zone and Liverpool were on their way out of the title race. When, half an hour later, Tuncay Sanli steered in a second, Liverpool's large travelling support began to make its way out of the ground.

They had chanted Benitez's name in the first half but will have debated the wisdom of that on the way home. They will also have wondered about Jamie Carragher's failure to shake hands with his manager when he was replaced on 72 minutes. Benitez said that was a tactical substitution but Carragher looked as peeved as the returning Steven Gerrard did when three excellent second-half chances he created were lost in poor finishing - or no finishing in the case of Dirk Kuyt's non-shot from six yards in the 68th minute.

Impressive Boro youngster Matthew Bates blocked one of the other two - from Alonso - while Nabil El-Zhar squandered the third, carelessly shooting over when teed up by Gerrard four minutes after half-time. And when taken together with the three good openings created in the first 16 minutes, Benitez was understandably infuriated by the wasted opportunities. Liverpool were not atrocious yesterday, but they were sloppy. Fernando Torres was missed.

But then Benitez has assembled this squad, it was his decision to drop Yossi Benayoun to the bench after his midweek winner against Real Madrid.

Benayoun replaced Carragher but Liverpool were two down then and were about to call on Pepe Reina to make a big save from Boro substitute Marlon King. King should really have made it 3-0.

Downing was the originator of that chance, breaking fast from the left into midfield and finding Tuncay and when Benitez admitted to being surprised by the hosts "in the second half" he must surely have been referring to the level of energy Downing and his colleagues sustained.

They too had played on Wednesday night, producing a morale-boosting win against West Ham in the FA Cup. Yesterday there were more than double the 15,000 who attended then and Gareth Southgate said afterwards that his players responded to the sight of a full stadium.

Southgate saluted fans who have "endured" Middlesbrough's depressing run but they may sense a renewal of belief that the manager has spoken of in the past few days. He deserves credit for his perseverance and for making a serious decision on record signing Afonso Alves, who has made way for two consecutive games.

Tuncay and Jeremie Aliadiere have begun those games and their willingness to bustle is an attribute in itself, one Alves lacks.

Behind them, goalkeeper Brad Jones has now kept three clean sheets in four in the league. It was ones who denied El- Zhar, Kuyt and Babel during that early spell when Gerrard was the hub of the game.

But it is Downing who sparks Boro and he gave Martin Skrtel an uncomfortable afternoon. It was Downing who took the corner that clipped Alonso. The cross flew over Gerrard's jump at the near post and perhaps wrong-footed by that, Alonso was off-balance when the ball struck his outstretched left leg. From there it sped the five yards over the line with Reina flummoxed.

Liverpool had their moments thereafter but Boro's appetite for the fight could be measured in Gary O'Neil's pursuit of a ball running out of play in the 63rd minute. O'Neil kept it in, then advanced.

Twenty yards out, wide on Boro's right, Aliadiere overlapped and O'Neil found him. This was now dangerous for the visitors if Aliadiere's cross was useful. It was, Tuncay scored, Liverpool drooped.