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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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By ESPN Staff

'I never doubted Hargreaves' - Lampard

Frank Lampard never had any doubt midfield partner Owen Hargreaves would prove his worth on the international stage.

Hargreaves' appearance in the Euro 2008 qualifying win over Andorra earned the Bayern Munich star his 36th England cap.

Crucially though, the 25-year-old has now started five times on the trot, his longest run since making his debut against Holland at White Hart Lane five years ago.

During that time, Hargreaves' abilities have constantly been questioned.

Many pundits cruelly asked the question 'What is the point of Owen Hargreaves?' and the Calgary-born player was booed by his own supporters when he was introduced against Paraguay in the opening game of England's disappointing World Cup campaign this summer.

The situation has turned full circle for Hargreaves now. And with Steven Gerrard slotting nicely into David Beckham's right-sided midfield role, the fledgling central midfield partnership with Lampard is showing encouraging signs.

Not that the Chelsea man is in any way surprised.

In praising Hargreaves' fortitude, Lampard insists he did not hold any serious fears the Canadian would eventually flourish.

'I always knew Owen was a good player,' he said. 'When you train with him every day, you see what kind of a player he is.

'We have all been there, early in our England careers, when you are in and out all the time and you can't quite show what you want.

'Owen kept his head down and he deserves credit for the way he handled himself when people were against him. Now he is playing with confidence and showing just how good he actually is.'

So startling has Hargreaves' rise been, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was apparently willing to splash out £17million to lure the disciplined holding midfielder from Bayern.

The Bundesliga giants eventually rebuffed the sustained inquiries, although it is expected Ferguson will be back in January to try to seal a deal.

By that stage, England hope to have taken a major stride towards booking their place at the finals in Switzerland and Austria by picking up another three points from Wednesday's trip to Macedonia, then collecting two wins from the return fixture with the eastern Europeans at Old Trafford next month and a far more testing encounter with Croatia in Zagreb.

While no-one in the England camp is getting ahead of themselves, perhaps recognising five goals against Andorra is not that much to shout about, it does seem the World Cup travails are gradually being consigned to history.

The decision of new coach Steve McClaren to move Gerrard onto the right looks like a masterstroke just now.

For not only has Gerrard responded by producing some of his best performances in an England shirt, Hargreaves' presence allows Lampard free rein to exhibit his own attacking talents.

'First and foremost, Owen is a defensive-minded player,' said Lampard.

'He sits more whereas with myself and Steven would tend to alternate when we went forward.

'I don't know whether Owen is suffering or not from the fact he didn't join United but he is cetainly not showing it.

'He is a confident sort of lad anyway and is just continuing the form he showed at the World Cup.'

Typically though, while the complaints about Hargreaves have subsided, the critics have turned their attention to Lampard.

With just one goal in his last seven games, the 28-year-old has hit a relatively barren streak and never looked like finding the net at Old Trafford despite Andorra's obvious frailties.

Lampard is unconcerned, citing the opposition's refusal to offer any kind of attacking threat as the major reason why his own scoring sharpness was blunted.

'I didn't have many shots but I was happy with my performance,' he said.

'They packed so many bodies into midfield it was impossible to go forward, so I just concentrated on offering an outlet, then try to move it out wide a bit quicker because that is where the space was.'