The long goodbye for Rafa?
Middlesbrough 1-1 LiverpoolAnd now, it appears, the end is near. Rafa Benitez's obduracy has meant that he has always done it his way, but as his final curtain beckons, there is a greater acceptance of the likelihood of the Spaniard's departure.
It may be a long goodbye but the events of the last week suggest the conclusion will be the same when the none-too-friendly fire from the United States materialises. The Liverpool public rallied to Benitez's defence two months ago, but in underachievement at the Riverside Stadium, their support was largely reserved for their side.
A solitary banner proclaimed: 'In Rafa We Trust'. There was a chorus of the manager's name, but that was before a mediocre performance unfolded. This time, however, there was no obvious groundswell of opinion to preserve the beleaguered Benitez's job. Although it had become apparent the American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, had approached Jurgen Klinsmann with a view to replacing the Liverpool manager, there were no demonstrations on the streets, no placards and no feeling that the distant owners may be facing a rebellion.
Perhaps the fans' resistance is over. Perhaps, too, the recognition that Liverpool won't win the title has prompted a change of thought. Perhaps a lamentable display against a weakened Middlesbrough team will mark a watershed.
Because, even in reclaiming fourth place, they highlighted their weaknesses by failing to take advantage of Arsenal's inability to beat Birmingham. Liverpool's season has been notable for taking one step forward and, simultaneously, another back, and today was symptomatic of that. Even the excellence of Fernando Torres, whose wonderful equaliser averted defeat, has been accompanied by the regression of the rest of the strike force, with Andriy Voronin proving a particularly unsatisfactory partner.
Torres, advancing to unleash a wonderful shot from 25 yards, came in for praise from Benitez, who said: 'He's a great player, it was a fantastic goal and he is always a threat for the defenders.'
Yet his explanation for his compatriot's development into a prolific scorer - this was his 17th of the season - jarred with those who had witnessed the ineffectual displays of John Arne Riise, Yossi Benayoun and the awful Voronin. 'He has more support from the team, that is the difference,' insisted the Liverpool manager. 'When he was Atletico Madrid sometimes he was playing on his own.'
But, apart from Steven Gerrard, who was predictably prominent in the midfield, it appeared that was precisely what Torres was doing. Middlesbrough were the more coherent team at the Riverside, while Liverpool benefited from individual inspiration.
More, however, was required, with the gap to Arsenal remaining 12 points. 'You cannot think about the leaders,' added Benitez, not quite ruling his charges out of contention. 'You must think about the next game.' Yet there is a familiar feeling for Liverpool, being off the pace, watching the title race unfold rather than participating in it and gazing up at the top of the table enviously.
Yet Benitez, operating with such speculation surrounding him, merits sympathy when decisions about his destiny have seemingly been made from afar. He has become accustomed to deflecting questions about his own job security and, when not mentioning a focus on coaching and training his team, he has retained his dignity.
Gareth Southgate's is an easier existence, aided by the loyalty of chairman Steve Gibson, yet the Middlesbrough manager is justifying his backing. This was a vibrant performance from a team with an admirable work ethic. Though there is a sense that they remain powder-puff in attack - Jeremie Aliadiere still only has one Premier League goal this season - the midfield quartet compensated, allying industry with quality.
Both were apparent in their goal, Stewart Downing swinging in a deep cross that Gary O'Neil and Alvaro Arbeloa challenged for at the back post. The ball looped across goal for Aliadiere to head back into the path of George Boateng to slide in. There was, too, almost a spectacular second when Downing's ferocious shot rebounded back off the post, four minutes before Torres levelled.
'Had we got the second when we hit the post, I think we would have gone on and won the game,' Southgate said. 'But then you look at the guy who scored their goal, he cost about as much as our entire 16.
'It was a performance borne out of adversity. We lost Jonathan Woodgate this morning and Manny [Pogatetz] last night. Given the circumstances, it was remarkable,' added the Middlesbrough manager. His concerns extended beyond that, with goalkeeper Schwarzer playing despite a bug and teenager Jonathan Grounds given a debut.
'He's a left back and that's why I played him,' the Boro manager explained. 'The option was to play a more experienced player in a more familiar position. I feel a) give youth its chance and b) put round pegs in round holes.'
His injury list has, he admits, brought black humour. So could his Liverpool counterpart's predicament, though the Spaniard reacted dryly. 'Some managers change players and I rotate players,' added Benitez. But barring another remarkable run in the Champions League, the likelihood is that Hicks and Gillett will rotate their manager.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Stewart Downing.
There have been suggestions Boro will sell him to finance the arrival of a prolific goalscorer, but Downing displayed why he would be missed. Excellent crossing was almost married with a wonderful goal. Boateng and O'Neil also merit a mention, along with Torres.
MIDDLESBROUGH VERDICT: They remain enigmas, capable of beating Arsenal and almost upsetting Liverpool, yet with a meagre total of two home wins this season. There was evidence of why a striker is required to turn excellent build-up into goals, but Aliadiere and Tuncay led from the front by hassling Liverpool. Maintain this level of performance and they should survive.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: As Benitez pointed out, they improved in the second half when Ryan Babel was introduced, but it was another disjointed display. With their defence troubled by the Middlesbrough forwards' pace and Gerrard apart, a difficulty in imposing themselves in midfield, it is hard to argue progress is being made.
INSPIRING CONFIDENCE: The warm-up routine of Charles Idantje, Liverpool's reserve goalkeeper, consisted of ducking whichever shots were headed in his direction. Clearly the ideal preparation for saving them, should he be needed in the match.