Silver hair, silverware?

Middlesbrough 3 Liverpool
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The Independent Online

But for David James's late diving save, Liverpool would have been beaten by the Fab four. As it was, Roy Evans and his players did not have the wool pulled over their eyes as Fabrizio Ravanelli tugged his red Middlesbrough shirt on to his head three times on Saturday.

If Liverpool fail to win the Premiership this season it will be Anfield's longest stretch without a championship trophy since the days of the Mersey beat.

Thus, while the home camp raved about Ravanelli, and dreamed of their new silver-haired hero bringing silverware to the Riverside, the visitors departed pondering the case for their defence.

After one game, and with Neil Ruddock not fit enough to start and John Scales still injured, it remains unproven. Yet even last season, when they finished two places and nine points short of Manchester United, Liverpool conceded three goals just once in 52 League and cup matches.

It took Ravanelli 81 minutes of Saturday's opener to achieve what only Newcastle United managed in nine months of the 1995-96 campaign. "It's the grey hair," Evans said. But the Liverpool manager's opening quip did not disguise a mood as grey as his own mop. As he lamented: "The penalty was a gift. We fell asleep for the second goal. And we gave him the last one. We defended poorly at times."

As Newcastle found last season, not least on the night they struck those three goals at Anfield, you cannot defend poorly and win the title. Then again, as John Barnes, the Liverpool captain and veteran of their last champion side in 1990, pointed out: "I don't think we'll come up against teams with as much movement up front as Middlesbrough have, with Ravanelli, Juninho and Barmby."

It was credit due to a team that almost choked on a ration of less than a goal a game last season and which, on Saturday, overcame both a disjointed start and the handicap of a ponderous three-man central defence. Even the contentious goal which gave Boro a foothold after 26 minutes illustrated their new attacking dynamism.

Juninho's elusive running forced Jason McAteer and Mark Wright to employ the strong-arm tactics Paul Alcock deemed worthy of a penalty, though the referee chose to ignore a more blatant offence on Barnes at the other end. And Ravanelli did not just convert the penalty; he whacked it past Alan Miller with the uncompromising purpose of a centre-forward from days of yore.

The two goals Ravanelli scored from open play further emphasised the point: the first, after 6 minutes, with the poacher's instinct which drew him into open space and on to the end of Neil Cox's low cross; the second, nine minutes from time, with the dogged persistence which found a highly effective shot from an unpromising edge-of-the-box scramble.

Each goal wiped out a Liverpool lead, fine opportunist efforts by Stig Bjornebye in the fourth minute, Barnes in the 29th and Robbie Fowler in the 65th. And it will have been of little consolation to Evans and his players that the hat-trick hero departed with deep admiration for them, as well as the match ball, his number 11 shirt and his pounds 27,000 weekly pay-cheque.

Goals: Bjornebye (4) 0-1; Ravanelli (pen 26) 1-1; Barnes (29) 1-2; Ravanelli (6) 2-2; Fowler (65) 2-; Ravanelli (81) -.

Middlesbrough (5--2): Miller; Cox, Vickers, Pearson, Whyte, Fleming; Mustoe (Moore 8), Emerson, Juninho; Barmby, Ravanelli. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Whelan, Hendrie, Hignett.

Liverpool (5--2): James; McAteer, Babb, Matteo, Wright, Bjornebye; McManaman, Thomas, Barnes; Collymore, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), L Jones, Ruddock, Thompson, Carragher.

Referee: P Alcock (Redhill).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Whyte, Emerson. Liverpool: McManaman, Wright.

Man of the Match: Ravanelli. Attendance: 0,09.