Liverpool encountered a pounds 7m hitch as they set about the resolution of their seven-year itch down at the Riverside yesterday.
The seventh season since England's most successful club were last crowned champions looked to be opening with three points as they entered the last 10 minutes with a 3-2 lead. But then, for the third time in the game, Fabrizio Ravanelli exploited Liverpool's soft underbelly. The Juventus old boy claimed his hat-trick with a side-footed shot from 10 yards, and a record crowd at Middlesbrough's new home acclaimed a new hero.
Ian Rush's summer departure to Elland Road left John Barnes the only survivor in the Anfield camp yesterday from the day, in April 1990, when Liverpool secured their most recent Championship with a 2-1 success at home to Queen's Park Rangers. Barnes, in fact, scored the winner from the penalty spot that afternoon, and the Liverpool captain had a hand, or more precisely a red-booted foot, in the early goal which will have fuelled title hopes on the Red side of Stanley Park.
It came virtually on the stroke of the fourth minute after Derek Whyte had been deemed over-zealous in a scything challenge on Robbie Fowler that rightfully drew a yellow card from Paul Alcock. Barnes floated the free-kick to the left edge of the box and, while Nigel Pearson pondered how to clear the loose ball, Stig Inge Bjornebye struck it past Alan Miller on the half-volley.
Liverpool's left wing-back was the longest shot among the foreign legionnaires to plunder the opening goal, at odds of 50-1, but the manner in which the Norwegian executed his half-chance showed the contrast between the teams in the opening 25 minutes. Middlesbrough, with Emerson alongside Juninho in midfield, and Ravanelli up front, played at high pace but without the same cohesion as Liverpool, who, in the absence of the injured Patrik Berger, had no new boys to break in.
Juninho's tireless foraging always looked to be Boro's most promising source, but there was more than an element of good fortune about the manner in which the son of Sao Paulo drew his side towards level terms after 25 minutes. Mark Wright's sliding tackle on the Olympian seemed a fair one but the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Steve McManaman was booked for his part in Liverpool's protests and Ravanelli stepped up to pay back the first installment of the fortune it took to lure him from Turin to Teesside.
The White Feather not so much tickled as blasted his kick high into the right corner of the net and, despite the Football Association directive forbidding the exposure of bare chests, celebrated his latest goal as he had done his last - against Ajax in the European Cup final in May - by pulling his shirt above his grey head. The shift-workers on the giant tanker docked behind the north stand celebrated too, waving a banner which announced, "Boro's Ravanelli on the telly." But Middlesbrough's defensive shortcomings were exposed again within four minutes.
Jason McAteer crossed from the right and, while the Boro rearguard dithered, Barnes trapped the ball on his chest and directed a left-foot shot past Miller and just inside the right post. Once again, though, Liverpool lost a potential winning platform. Neil Cox did the damage with an inviting low ball in from the right, and Ravanelli did the rest with his outstretched left foot.
Emerson's midfield dynamism became increasingly influential after the break, but just as Middlesbrough looked to be getting a grip on the game, they fell behind for a third time. Bjornebye supplied the left-wing cross and the lurking Fowler applied the inevitable finish at the far post.
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