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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 2 hours ago
Read
May 3, 2009

Unhappy returns for substitute Owen

Ignore the context and it could have appeared a wonderful appreciation of his ability and achievements. It could, indeed, have been the sort of scene Anfield witnessed regularly during the seven seasons of first-team football that brought 158 goals. As the majority of Liverpool fans rose to their feet, a familiar phrase appeared over the tannoy: "Number 10: Michael Owen." The applause, however, was directed towards Xabi Alonso, being carried off in front of the Kop.

Perhaps fearing more questions about his whereabouts in Istanbul, Owen hadn't warmed up. At a ground where a generous reception is often afforded to those who have served Liverpool well (or, in the case of Danny Guthrie, briefly), he is the exception. It is not just Fabio Capello who hasn't warmed to him recently. The Italian isn't the only manager to overlook him.

Owen was studiously ignored by more than just the Liverpool fans. They may have been echoing Alan Shearer's treatment of his former strike partner. Shearer helped persuade Owen to join Newcastle, but it only took him four games to deem the club's record signing and best-paid player dispensable. "He wasn't happy but he has been very, very professional about it," said his manager, explaining the omission of a specialist predator who has not scored for almost four months. "We haven't been creating chances. Is Oba [Obafemi Martins] more likely to score one from 15, 20 or 25 yards than Michael? Probably."

His counterpart would probably concur, if only privately. "Michael is a very good player but you always have to respect the decisions of the other manager," said Rafa Benitez, speaking more fondly of the striker he refused to re-sign than he did when Owen was eager for a second spell at Anfield.

As this return proved, homecomings are not always enjoyable occasions. The boyhood Everton fan Joey Barton provided evidence of that. His dangerous challenge on Alonso resulted in the Spaniard's exit - on a stretcher - and his own, sent off in ignominy.

In the process, Barton provided his own reprehensible contribution to Newcastle's struggles by ruling himself out of the rest of the season. Given Barton's chequered past, the chants of "going down" may not have just referred to Newcastle's probable relegation, though the words of his manager should concern him more.

"I'm not happy," said Shearer. "He's let the football club down and he's let himself down. He wasn't unlucky; it was the right decision." With Barton and Alan Smith, who risked a dismissal with his mistimed tackling, to the fore, Newcastle appear intent on going down fighting. The problem is that their expensive assortment of misfits seem to be bound for the Championship. Between them, Barton, Smith and Mark Viduka are paid in the region of £200,000 a week. Mediocrity has rarely been this lucrative.

Such awful recruitment is a reason why Shearer may not be the man who put the mess into Messiah. The problems long predate his arrival. Nevertheless, Tyneside's answer to the Tinkerman tried a fourth formation in five games. Opting for 4-2-3-1 may have provided a mirror to Liverpool's system, but it certainly didn't enable Newcastle to perform like their hosts. For 15 minutes, the change worked.

Then Liverpool, inspired and inventive, took over. Yossi Benayoun's third goal in three games came after Dirk Kuyt reacted quickest when the ball bounced off Smith to deliver a cross-shot. Kuyt's third in two was a flying header from the returning Steven Gerrard's corner. The substitute Lucas Leiva belatedly completed the scoring, heading in Fabio Aurelio's free kick. "I'm disappointed with the way the goals came about," added Shearer. "The first was offside. The second and third were both from set-pieces. But the best team won and there could have been more goals."

That is an understatement. The woodwork had more touches than Owen. "Was it three times they hit the bar or four?" asked Shearer. Just the three: Alonso, twice, with tremendous long-range strikes, and Gerrard, in added time, could both count themselves unfortunate. It means Liverpool continue their pursuit of Manchester United, even if, with each passing week, it appears it might not quite be enough. Theirs has been a stirring title challenge, a team playing each game as though it might be their last thrashing a side who performed as though it should be their final match.

For those who subscribe to the school of thought that second place equates to an unsuccessful season, Liverpool will probably fail. But theirs is heroic failure. Newcastle's is merely abject.


MAN OF THE MATCH: Dirk Kuyt - He made one goal, scored another and worked tirelessly. While Benitez has been criticised for his signings of strikers - Fernando Torres apart - Kuyt has been a terrific asset for Liverpool this season. Ever willing and ever present in the Premier League this season, it is easy to see now why Benitez prefers him to Owen.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Their greatest concerns from this game were injuries, though Benitez believes Alonso and Javier Mascherano, who were both taken off, and Torres, who missed out with his hamstring strain, should be fit to face West Ham. The defence have had their difficulties recently, but Newcastle presented so few threats that it was hard to judge if Liverpool have improved.

NEWCASTLE VERDICT: They have scored one goal in five games under Shearer. "That's been the biggest frustration," said a man who proved rather more prolific in his own playing days. It is hard to add to that tally without creating more chances. Liverpool appeared to suspect that an aged, injury-prone side couldn't play at the pace required, and they were correct.

CAREER ADVICE: The Liverpool fans had enjoyed taunting the Newcastle manager with a chorus of "Alan Shearer's a football genius" before offering some career advice. "You should have stayed on the telly," chorused the Kop. Shearer, to his credit, got to his feet, smiling.

ARE YOU WATCHING, FERGIE? It was definitely game over when Liverpool went 2-0 ahead but, lest Sam Allardyce and Sir Alex Ferguson become offended, Benitez tried to convey nothing. "I didn't want to do any gestures in the dugout just in case," said the Liverpool boss.

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