Blow for Liverpool
Liverpool's Rafael Benitez
London - Liverpool's Premier League title hopes suffered a crushing setback on Saturday as Rafael Benitez's men slumped a 2-0 defeat at Middlesbrough.
Three days after beating Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, Liverpool were brought back down to earth with a painful bump by opponents who had not won a league match since November 9.
The defeat allowed Chelsea - who claimed a last-gasp 2-1 win over Wigan - to reclaim second place in the table courtesy of their superior goal difference.
But the real winners were champions Manchester United, who now stand seven points clear of both their closest rivals with a game in hand.
Triumph in the Club Championship
Benitez came close to conceding that any chance of catching United had gone.
"Before the game it was very difficult, now it will be more difficult," the Spaniard acknowledged, before blaming poor finishing for his side's plight.
"You have to take your chances if you want to win these games," he said.
"The first 30 minutes we had five chances and we didn't score a goal. It has been a problem during the season and today has been the same."
United did not have a league game at the weekend because of Sunday's League Cup final date with Tottenham, which will see Sir Alex Ferguson's side attempt to claim their second trophy of the season following their triumph in the World Club Championship in Japan in December.
Arsenal were jeered off the pitch by their own supporters after a 0-0 draw at home to Fulham - their fifth straight draw in the league and a fourth consecutive goalless stalemate.
If Aston Villa can beat relegation-threatened Stoke on Sunday, the Gunners will find themselves eight points adrift of a top four finish with only 11 games left to close the gap.
The defeat at Middlesbrough means Liverpool have now won just two of their last seven league matches and a bitterly disappointing afternoon was compounded by the sight of skipper Steven Gerrard, who made his first start in over three weeks, limping off midway through the second half.
Gerrard's influence had seen the visitors dominate the opening stages at the Riverside but they found themselves behind just after the half-hour mark when Alonso deflected a Stewart Downing corner into his own net.
Boro effectively ended the match as a contest when Turkey star Tuncay Sanli converted Jeremie Aliadiere's cutback in the 63rd minute.