Middlesbrough beat Liverpool 2-0 at the Riverside today to all but end their slim chance of catching and overtaking Manchester United at the summit of the English Premier League, and with Chelsea winning 2-1 against Wigan it now looks as if the Anfield side will have a real battle on their hands for the second place spot.
'Boro who had not won a league match since November took on a Liverpool team who had disposed of Real Madrid without much fuss mid week, and despite going into the game as overwhelming underdogs they took the game to Liverpool and were well worth their win.
Xabi Alonso prodded home a Stewart Downing corner to hand Gareth Southgate's team the lead, and from then on it was a case of Middlesbrough picking Liverpool off almost at will. It came as no surprise to see Sanli Tuncay score the second and only poor finishing denied the Riverside team a higher score.
Liverpool have found it tough going against Middlesbrough in recent years, most recently a fortuitous 2-1 win at Anfield in August where Emmanuel Pogatetz scored an own goal in the 87th minute before Steven Gerrard added a winner five minutes into injury time.
With Liverpool not having won at the Riverside since 2002 and with Middlesbrough beating Premiership opposition for the first time since November in the FA Cup on Wednesday, a unlikely win was always on the cards today.
A Fernando Torres-less Liverpool welcomed Steven Gerrard back into the fold for his 300th start in a Liverpool jersey but even he could not inspire his team today.
Liverpool controlled the early exchanges and created a few half chances before Boro scored against the run of play through Alonso's deflected goal. All of Middlesbrough's best chances were created from the boot of Stewart Downing and the ' Boro midfield tried to get the ball out to him as often as they could.
His intelligent runs off the ball and his skill on the ball had Martin Skrtel spinning in circles, the Slovak international having his worst day in a Liverpool shirt. It should be noted that he normally plays at centre half and Rafael Benitez's curious decision to play him at right full backfired spectacularly.A mid paced player at best, he was undone by Downing's pace time after time.
Both teams employed counter attacking tactics and sat back in hope of the other team making a mistake, and more often than not it was Middlesbrough who went close despite Liverpool dominating possession.
Another Skrtel mistake left Downing with only Reina to beat but the Spanish stopper was more than equal to the task.
Liverpool began to push Middlesbrough back but it was through another counter attacking move that 'Boro doubled the lead.
Again it was against the run of play, Jeremy Aliadiere was sent clear on the right and his low cross was met by Sanli Tuncay who scored from 12 yards out.
The goal was a carbon copy of a move at the other end only minutes earlier. Gerrard had found himself at the backline and pulled a superb ball back for El Zhar, but the Moroccan who was making his first start fired high and wide to leave the travelling reds calling for Robbie Keane.
As the game pushed on Middlesbrough could have and should have scored a third, Marlon King was set up by Downing but he took too long to shoot and Reina read his effort easily. He then had a goal disallowed for offside, again Downing the creator.
Benitez threw in the towel metaphorically speaking as he withdrew both Gerrard and Carrager and with them Liverpool's only chance of salvaging something from the game.
If one reads into this decision to take these players off you could be forgiven for thinking that Benitez has all but given up on the Premiership title and is now concentrating on the Champions League.
So Middlesbrough won 2-0 in a game where Liverpool were perhaps the better team, a fitting result after the game between these two in August. On that occasion Middlesbrough dominated for long periods before bad luck handed the victory to Liverpool.
Rick Parry will make his exit from Liverpool in the summer as Rafael Benitez seems to have won this battle in the power struggle in the corridors of power at Anfield. But one must wonder if the board are giving Benitez too much rope.
Liverpool will never win the Premiership with the Spaniard in charge, he sets his team up not to lose whereas managers like Wenger, Ferguson, Scolari, and Hiddink all set their teams up to try to win.
There is a distinct difference between the two approaches, and with Benitez now been handed the contract and transfer negotiations at the club one must wonder if he has been given this extra work to set him up to fail.
As the old saying goes "Give someone enough rope and they'll hang themselves."