Lethal Fowler fires in four

 

ROBBIE FOWLER, like a bats-man on song, went past his century with a four. His second goal took him to the landmark in his 165th game for Liverpool, one fewer than Ian Rush.

Towards the end at Anfield on Saturday, Jason McAteer shot with ambition and the ball skewed to the far touchline. The crowd laughed - and laughed again when it became a perfect pass for Stig Inge Bjornebye.

Liverpool were on a spree against a defence that had been dispersed like motorway cones, leaving Gary Walsh a helpless hero behind. It was too easy 50[ that a dozen chances were missed, ranging from the simple to the spectacularly optimistic. Even Fowler missed two of them, carried along by the tide of glee. But he is the poacher par excellence and when it mattered his execution was infallible.

His first, after 29 seconds, was straightforward and set Liverpool at ease - two points from three home games had left the crowd restless to the point of hostility. His second was sharply reactive to a rebound, his third clinical, his fourth magical with sway of hip and sleight of foot turning Derek Whyte, then Walsh, into cork-screws. He has an instinct where others, especially Steve McManaman, have a hang-up.

Bjornebye scored the other and Stan Collymore had a part in four. He above all revelled in the space that Middlesbrough could not get to. "I don't see a better talent in the game than Stan when his application is right," said Liverpool manager Roy Evans. He played only because Patrik Berger had flu.

Evans despite the crescendo of boos attending his recent exits at home, had declined to change a stuttering team. This at least was true to the Anfield tradition. Those boos and the derisory laughter were not.

Middlesbrough's defence was in the wrong place all afternoon.

Denied the defensive experience of Nigel Pearson, Curtis Fleming, Steve Vickers and Chris Morris, as well as Juninho in attack, manager Bryan Rob son plumped for a freewheeling approach when discipline was his only hope after 11 league games without victory. It put the ball into Liverpool's court and they returned it, as often as they cared, into Middlesbrough's net.

Emerson played because it was the best way of making sure he was not heading for an airport. He shambled with inconsequence, a bear dancing to his own tune, performing tricks learnt and lovely on a Brazllian beach but lot on, his team-mates. "He was below par because of the training he has missed," said Robson.

Robson can hardly have expected, when he embarked on the season with his stars in the ascendant, that he would need to be marriage counsellor as well as manager.