Liverpool’s fading title hopes suffered a major blow as they slumped to a shock 2-0 defeat at the hands of Premier League strugglers Middlesbrough.
Xabi Alonso’s first-half own goal plus a second from the outstanding Tuncay Sanli after the break leaves the Reds a daunting seven points behind leaders Manchester United having played a game more.
Liverpool’s 15-game Premier League unbeaten run was left in tatters by a rejuvenated Middlesbrough, who rode their luck early on before securing a fully deserved first league win since early November to ease their relegation fears in style.
It means the Merseyside club’s trip to Old Trafford later this month now adopts must-win proportions – and even that might not be enough to prevent their bitter rivals from securing a latest title at their expense.
After seemingly sorting out their behind the scenes problems by announcing Rick Parry, the chief executive who enjoys an uneasy working relationship with manager Rafa Benitez, will leave at the end of the season, Liverpool’s on the field frustrations look set to continue.
This latest damaging setback stretches their winless run at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium to seven years, a venue where they have failed to score in six of their last seven visits.
Boro’s Australian keeper Brad Jones was forced into three fine early saves to deny Nabil El Zhar, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel as Liverpool, with Steven Gerrard restored to the starting line-up before his late substitution when the midfielder understandably tired, dominated.
But the visitors were made to pay for failing to assert their dominance, as they fell behind in comical circumstances after 32 minutes.
Martin Skrtel and two other defenders failed to head clear as Stewart Downing swung in a corner from the right, catching a flat-footed Alonso unawares on the six-yard line. The ball hit the Spaniard and bounced tamely past Pepe Reina.
It broke Middlesbrough’s 527-minute Premier League goal drought – almost nine hours – and provided the platform for their first league win in 15 games in a huge boost to their hopes of avoiding relegation.
The out-of-touch El Zhar wasted another Gerrard-inspired opening to level straight after the break as Liverpool were soon brought back down to earth in the wake of their memorable 1-0 Champions League victory against Real Madrid in midweek.
Instead of sitting back and defending their lead, Boro went in search of a decisive second goal to calm the nerves, which arrived in the 62nd-minute.
Gary O’Neil fed Jeremie Aliadiere down the Boro right, and the forward easily out-paced Sami Hyypia to cut back a low cross for man-of-the match Tuncay, who beat Reina with a low angled drive from 15-yards to put the hosts in control.
There was still time for Kuyt to miss his kick six yards out with the goal at his mercy from Gerrard’s inviting low cross – the England midfielder’s last meaningful contribution before he succumbed to cramps with 13 minutes left.
At the other end Middlesbrough substiute Marlon King, who shot straight at Reina, and O’Neil, who volleyed narrowly wide at the end of a four-man move, both came close to adding a third as Liverpool pushed forward in search of a way back which never came.