Sunday, 1 March 2009

Benitez surrenders title deeds

Rafael Benitez waved a white handkerchief when he conceded it was now down to bitter rivals Manchester United to lose the Premier League title race.

Maybe it was a case of after the Lord Mayor's show following their Champions League excursions against Real Madrid but it is safe to assume the biggest cheer was heard in Manchester – not Teesside – when Liverpool crashed to a demoralising 2-0 reverse against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday.

Middlesbrough's first league win since November 9 - coupled by Chelsea's late 2-1 win against Wigan - saw Liverpool slip to third in the table, albeit on the same number of points as the west Londonders, but, significantly, Sir Alex Ferguson's side now have a another game in hand and a seemingly unassailable seven-point lead.

Benitez, as is his way, refused to state the obvious, but did say: "Before the game, it was very difficult - after the game it is more difficult."

He added: "It depends on United, but it will be more difficult, clearly."

Boro, who had not scored a Premier League goal in 526 minutes of competitive action prior to Liverpool's visit, somehow conjured up a second wind following their FA Cup defeat of West Ham on Wednesday, although they were gifted a good slice of fortune for their opener.

The luckless Xabi Alonso contrived to deflect Stewart Downing's corner into his own net and life seemed to ebb away from the visitors when Tuncay swept in Jeremie Aliadiere's low centre to make the points safe.

Not even inspirational captain Steven Gerrard, so often the saviour, could inspire Liverpool on his 300th appearance for the club and without principal threat Fernando Torres there appeared to be no focal point for the Merseysiders when they did manage to cross the half-way line.

Benitez insisted his ongoing contract situation, or the imminent departure of chief executive Rick Parry, had caused his players to take their eye off the ball.

It would not be wholly inaccurate to suggest he is running out of excuses as fast as Liverpool are running out of fixtures.

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