Charlton suffer as Owen eases back into his stride

THE RETURN of Michael Owen for his first game since the recurrence of his hamstring problems five weeks ago was reason enough for Sven-Goran Eriksson, the England coach, to opt for this game ahead of the big one at Old Trafford. But a goal from his No 1 striker during a trouble-free 62 minutes made it an inpsired choice ahead of next month's friendly against Sweden.

There must have been a temptation for Phil Thompson, the Liverpool caretaker manager, to keep Owen back for the club's crucial Champions League game against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, but in the event the run-out did nothing but good ahead of that match and the equally important Premiership clash against Manchester United next Sunday.

With both goals coming in the first half, it was the sort of game which did not ask too much of the brittle Owen, nor the Liverpool team come to that, even if they did spend almost the entire second half with their backs to the wall.

In some respects, it was vaguely reminiscent of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope tactics and one sensed that Liverpool could always switch to the offensive if the occasion demanded.

It meant that Thompson was unbeaten now in five games, including three wins, since he took over from Gerard Houllier halfway through the match against Leeds United - and the club is looking in safer hands than some might have imagined when he stepped in as acting manager from the Frenchman.

Apart from Owen, the presence of three others in the Liverpool side who could be considered possible starters for next month's friendly was another good reason for the England coach not to take the early train to Manchester. But he received an unexpected bonus in the performance of Jamie Redknapp, who was once upon time considered by Glenn Hoddle for a sweeper role in the national team.

Redknapp missed the whole of last season with a knee injury which at one time looked as though it might end a career that, in international terms, has never really got started. So it was greatly encouraging for the midfielder that in his second consecutive league start of the season he should score his first Premiership goal in 19 months. It will have been as much of a pick-me-up for his manager Houllier, convalescing after heart surgery.

It was the ideal match in which to nurse back to full fitness players like Owen and Redknapp. For the first half-hour, the Merseysiders seldom got out of second gear as Charlton made things more difficult for themselves than need be.

In fact, the first chance fell to Charlton but Paul Konchesky miscued his shot. When Liverpool's opening opportunity presented itself they scored. A throw-in by Stephen Wright was nodded on by Steven Gerrard, returning to the side after missing the midweek Champions League match in Portugal, and Redknapp was on hand to volley emphatically home. It was as neat and tidy as everything else he attempted.

Eventually, though, Charlton shook off the after-effects of their lethargic performance at Villa Park in midweek and internal strife to threaten Liverpool. But minutes after Claus Jensen had driven the ball narrowly wide when he perhaps ought to have scored, Liverpool punished them again, on the counter. Dietmar Hamann put Owen through with a perfectly-timed pass and the little man showed he has lost neither his pace nor his nose his for goal by drawing Dean Kiely before slipping the ball home.

To their credit, Charlton kept flailing away but without success. Jonatan Johansson grazed the bar and John Robinson hit a post, but the Merseysiders always seemed in control. The only blot on their copybook was the dismissal of Wright for a second bookable offence with two minutes remaining.

Copyright - The Telegraph

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