Middlesbrough do enough

 

FOR Middlesbrough, cups are about as rare as flying saucers and after taking a 2-0 lead against a dishevelled Liverpool side in last night's League Cup quarter final at the Riverside Stadium they found themselves hanging on once Steve McManaman had scored just past the hour.

Liverpool used to regard the League Cup as an insignificant bauble. Nevertheless they have won it five times and arrived on Teesside knowing that victory might leave them two of the simpler strides away from reaching their eighth final.

League form suggested that this would indeed be the case. In two Premier League matches this season eight Liverpool goals had nestled in the back of Middlesbrough's net, five of them deposited there by Robbie Fowler, and although the 3-3 draw at Riverside on the opening day had been all about Fabrizio Ravanelli's hat trick, Middlesbrough's 5-1 defeat at Anfield shortly before Christmas had steepened their subsequent decline.

Only in the league, however. In the cups Bryan Robson's players had swept past the lower orders and beaten Newcastle, scoring 24 goals in five ties with Ravanelli getting nine of them. Reason enough for Liverpool to be on their guard. In the event, the guard went AWOL.

Injuries to John Barnes and Stan Collymore forced Liverpool to improvise last night. Jason McAteer moved to central midfield with Rob Jones returning on the right for his first senior appearance since last year's FA Cup final. Patrik Berger, fiercely criticised by Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, after the narrow Cup win over Burnley, kept his place up front.

A 20 yard drive from Jones, meeting a half cleared centre from Stig Bjornebye, reminded Riverside that Liverpool were not merely looking to Fowler for goals. In fact the first glimpse of a goal, after six minutes, followed a mistake at the other end by David James which was soon to prove portentous.

The Liverpool goalkeeper showed signs of Dave Beasant's disease when a misdirected clearance offered Ravanelli a chance to score the sort of goal with which Barnes had recently won a game at Southampton. The Italian striker missed the target, but six minute later James made another, similar error and this time he was punished for it.

A much shorter, weaker clearance went straight to Craig Hignett, who almost lost his footing under pressure from McManaman before driving a left footed shot low into the net. Liverpool immediately responded with a quick exchange of passes between McManaman and Fowler which Emerson just managed to intercept, but defensively they looked very suspect.

Phil Babb sliced the ball across the face of his own 18 yard line and got away with it. So did Dominic Matteo, after appearing the handle in the penalty area. It was no particular surprise, therefore, when Middlesbrough went further ahead.

Juninho, running at defenders, full of tricks and swerves, was causing Liverpool all kinds of problems. So were Emerson, Robbie Mustoe, Hignett and Ravanelli. So was Clayton Blackmore, the old Welsh war horse. After 25 minutes they conceded a corner on the right. Hignett's kick dipped low into the goal mouth and Steve Vickers met it with a well struck volley into the net.

Middlesbrough had little intention of sitting on their lead, and given the state of Liverpool's defence it seemed a wise policy. Four minutes after half time Emerson, surging through on the right, gathered a ball from Hignett and without changing pace beat James with a chip of pure Brazilian impudence. But it went wide.

Had it gone in Liverpool would have been done for. As it was they dragged themselves back into the contest three minutes past the hour when a sweet movement saw McAteer and Berger sweep aside Middlesbrough's cover before the Czech's pass set up McManaman for a simple goal.