Benitez opts to look on the bright side

 

Middlesbrough 0, Liverpool 0: "We are the champions." Over and over Liverpool fans sang this song, at least until the last 20 minutes when it dawned on them that this might not be a continuation of that Istanbul feeling. Indeed it is just as well that the next line of the song is "champions of Europe".

After one game Liverpool are now two points behind Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea in the race to be champions of England.

On Saturday the chances of a first league title at Anfield for 16 years felt as remote as 1990 itself. As Steven Gerrard said afterwards: "Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United don't drop many points. But this was a tough opening game for us."

And Middlesbrough do have some kind of hold on Liverpool here. Whereas the top three all won here last season, Liverpool departed beaten 2-0. Boro, in fact, have lost only once at home to Liverpool since leaving Ayresome Park in 1995.

On Saturday, the 10th anniversary of that move, Boro erected the old Ayresome gates outside the Riverside before kick-off. They then tried a similar tactic when the game began.

Gerrard kept on getting through, though, but a combination of factors denied him the goal that would have forced Boro to rethink.

Rafael Benitez tried to sound positive about the improvement from last season's score but his visage said the opposite.

"We have done a better job, played better and got a better result," he said.

"I am sure we will win more games away from home this season."

Liverpool have to win six away if that target is to be met. Last season's five featured none against the eventual top 10. Losing away, which Liverpool did 11 times, became too much of a habit and another Benitez remark here was "At the end it looks like we have lost . . . it's a pity".

All the while, just along the concourse but out of Benitez's eyeline, Michael Owen's face stared down from an advertising hoarding. Given that Fernando Morientes, Djibril Cisse and Milan Baros had all had a go at some stage and did not provide between them a shot worthy of the description, the England striker's presence was not inappropriate.

Even allowing for Peter Crouch's absence, Liverpool need Owen back from Madrid, on loan or permanently, if they are to threaten those above them. "Progressing nicely" was how one person close to the negotiations described the situation at the weekend.

The club's quiet confidence is reinforced by Owen's obvious view of Newcastle as a last resort. There may be two more weeks of will-it-really-happen talk. Luckily Liverpool do not have another away day until after the transfer deadline closes.

Then they go to Tottenham who, one imagines, will be more adventurous than Boro.

Steve McClaren's side may have been down to 10 men for the last 16 minutes, Ugo Ehiogu being shown a red card for clattering Gerrard, but their negative display offered no joy to a stadium less than full for the visit of the European champions on the opening day.