Robson left purring, Evans bemoaning as Branca, Merson and Boro stun Reds

Middlesbrough's Marco Branco scores his side's second goal in the first five minutes against Liverpool in their Coca-Cola semi-final second leg in 1998. (Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA)
Middlesbrough's Marco Branco scores his side's second goal in the first five minutes against Liverpool in their Coca-Cola semi-final second leg in 1998. (Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA)
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IT was a feted occasion which Bryan Robson labelled as his best ever Riverside night during his memorable tenure as Middlesbrough manager.

February 18, 1998 was also a date which one seasoned Italian striker will not forget in a hurry either or any of those present with Boro affiliations in front of a sell-out crowd.

Middlesbrough's Paul Merson celebrates the victory over Liverpool

Middlesbrough's Paul Merson celebrates the victory over Liverpool

A tense 2-0 victory on the night, in a pulsating Coca-Cola Cup semi-final second-leg which was on a knife-edge, saw the Teessiders book a final spot with a narrow 3-2 aggregate success over Liverpool.

After waiting over a century to reach a domestic cup final, progression on a raucous winter night 20 years ago enabled Boro to book a third Wembley date inside 12 months.

The pulses were racing early on with a whirlwind start seeing Boro – trailing 2-1 from the first leg at Anfield – turn the tables to lead 2-0 in a scarcely believable opening, thanks to goals from Paul Merson (penalty) and new signing Marco Branca.

On Merseyside, a fine strike from ‘Magic Man’ Merson had given Boro hope ahead of a pivotal second leg.

That Anfield night was particularly memorable for one young Yorkshireman in Boro’s ranks, with Pontefract-born teenager Steve Baker being assigned with man-marking duties on Reds dangerman Steve McManaman.

He was the flying winger’s shadow for 90 minutes, with an exasperated McManaman famously gesturing to take his Liverpool shirt off and offering it to his rival at one point, evidence halfway through the game that the 19-year-old was doing his job.

McManaman and his team-mates copped rather more frustration in the North Riding too.

Promotion-chasing Boro were afforded a dream start on two minutes when Jamie Carragher brought down Mikkel Beck and Merson fired home the penalty.

Incredibly, two minutes later, it was 2-0 when recent signing Branca – supposedly being saved for that weekend’s key derby with Sunderland – paid back the first instalment on his transfer fee, less than 48 hours after touching down in England after his seven-figure move from Inter Milan.

Branca raced onto Merson’s throughball and shot under the legs of David James.

Boro, with Nigel Pearson, Steve Vickers and Gianluca Festa sturdy in the heart of defence, withstood pressure from the visitors for much of the remainder of the game and resolutely held firm.

Robbie Fowler saw a rising drive athletically tipped over by Mark Schwarzer and Karlheinz Riedle went close with a header, but it was Boro’s night.

A beaming Robson said: “I can’t speak highly enough of them.

“That has got to be the best performance and the best result since I took the job here.”

Suitably less enamoured with developments, his Liverpool counterpart Roy Evans remarked: “It was a crazy start. Kamikaze. Suicidal stuff. We had a game plan, which was out of the window in less than four minutes. We handed it to them on a plate with sloppy defending.”