Middlesbrough ends depressing run

Tuncay Sanli (second left) celebrates with teammates after scoring Boro's second goal.-AP Tuncay Sanli (second left) celebrates with teammates after scoring Boro's second goal.

Combining with O'Neil on the right, Aliadiere's low cross was pushed past Reina by Tuncay Sanli for a goal of stylish simplicity. By Paul Wilson.

It has been a momentous week for Liverpool, winning at the Bernabeu and losing a chief executive, but Middlesbrough can easily top that. Two wins in four days is the stuff of dreams on Teesside and, unlike in the FA Cup in midweek, this time the stadium was full to see a first league victory since early November effectively snuff out any remaining Merseyside title hopes.

Cynics might suggest Liverpool's title challenge most likely ended with the result in Madrid anyway and, while Rafa Benitez did not quite wave a white flag, he did not put up much of an argument. Recently he said Liverpool would have to beat Manchester United to have a chance of the title, now it looks like they would have to beat them up. "I am disappointed, you have to score if you want to stay at the top of the table," he said. "Before the game it was very difficult for us to win the league. Now it is more difficult."

This game was not all about Liverpool, though. Boro's manager paid tribute to the fans for filling the stadium despite such a depressing run. "It was great to see a full house and great to put two performances together," Gareth Southgate said of the victory.

"I was just as pleased with another clean sheet, good defending is the basis of good results." Rather than dwell on the "welter of statistics about how long it is since Boro won a game" Southgate accentuated the positives about his side's recent form, pointing out that only two goals have been conceded in the past six games and only one defeat recorded.

Goodness knows how Boro managed to do that, because they could easily have been three goals down after 20 minutes here. "We had five chances in the first 30 minutes and we didn't take them," Ben�tez said. "That's why we lost." He was not wrong on either count. Making his first league start in place of the injured Fernando Torres, or at least appearing on the wing with Dirk Kuyt labouring as the Spaniard's replacement at centre-forward, Nabil El Zhar cut in from the right in the ninth minute and should probably have done better than bring a save from Brad Jones.

Kuyt should definitely have done better six minutes later when David Wheater's poor clearance presented him with a clear sight of goal, shooting too high and allowing Jones to tip over. When Ryan Babel joined in on Liverpool's next attack, aiming a ? shot straight at the goalkeeper with Boro's defence again split, the visitors must have thought they were in for an easy afternoon.

It was not as if Boro were causing them any problems. Stewart Downing clearly enjoyed playing against stand-in right-back Martin Skrtel and was able to get behind Liverpool's backline almost at will, yet his delivery and decision making constantly let him down. Only once was Jose Reina required to make a save, when Gary O'Neil got on the end of a cross to the far post, before a freak opening goal turned the match on its head. Perhaps distracted by Wheater's close presence, Xabi Alonso stood rooted to the spot on his own six-yard line as Downing's corner came in, hit him on the leg and rebounded directly into Reina's bottom-right corner.

Boro held their lead until the interval but should have lost it at the start of the second half, Steven Gerrard producing the perfect cutback only to see El Zhar blast wastefully over the bar.

Jeremie Aliadiere then did exactly the same at the other end, fluffing a decent opportunity with a skyward shot after a heavy first touch, though at least the Frenchman made amends with his contribution to Boro's second. Combining with O'Neil on the right, Aliadiere's low cross was pushed past Reina by Tuncay for a goal of stylish simplicity. Gerrard frantically tried to rescue the situation, as he does, but was frustrated to see Jones save one shot and Kuyt fail to turn in another.

When the Liverpool captain was withdrawn a quarter of an hour from the end suffering from cramp, it felt as though Liverpool were throwing in the towel. Not just in this game, but on another domestic season.

THE RESULTS

March 1: Aston Villa 2 (Petrov 45, Carew 79) drew with Stoke 2 (Shawcross 88, Whelan 90+1). Half-time: 1-0; Bolton 1 (Gardner 47) bt Newcastle 0. Half-time: 0-0; Hull 1 (Ashbee 79) lost to Blackburn 2 (Warnock 34, Andrews 37). Half-time: 0-2; West Ham 1 (Collison 71) bt Manchester City 0. Half-time: 0-0.

February 28: Arsenal 0 drew with Fulham 0; Chelsea 2 (Terry 25, Lampard 90+1) bt Wigan 1 (Kapo 82). Half-time: 1-0; Everton 2 (Cahill 36, Saha 70) bt West Brom 0. Half-time: 1-0; Middlesbrough 2 (Alonso o.g. 32, Tuncay 63) bt Liverpool 0. Half-time: 1-0.

February 23: Hull 1 (Turner 27) lost to Tottenham 2 (Lennon 17, Woodgate 86). Half-time: 1-1.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009