PERHAPS there was, as Robbie Fowler so amusingly put it, some method in Gerard Houllier's apparent madness. Having felt the full force of the Liverpool manager's boot on his backside, Fowler responded accordingly at St James' Park with a performance that might yet convince Sven-Goran Eriksson to select him for the England game against Greece on Saturday.
Listening to Houllier last week, it appeared Fowler was of little use to anybody. Suffering, the Frenchman said, from a lack of fitness and a loss of form, Fowler was left on the bench for Liverpool's Champions League contest against Dynamo Kiev with much to ponder.
By yesterday afternoon, however, Fowler's circumstances had changed for the better. Back in the side and, one would assume, back in favour, he proved to those he must impress that he is somewhat sharper than his manager had suggested. It was his first 90 minutes of the season, and in front of Tord Grip, Eriksson's trusted assistant, he acquitted himself well.
Reluctant to write more headlines, Houllier refused to discuss the 26-year-old afterwards. "Nice try," he replied to a legitimate question. "I'm not talking about Robbie. Hard luck."
Fortunately for Fowler, Bobby Robson was rather more relaxed about the subject. "Robbie Fowler is one of the best strikers in the country," he said. "Tord Grip was here to see how he played today, but I thought he looked fitter than he has done, and what a finish to the chance he had. It was a good job the linesman was bright."
The linesman did indeed raise his flag when Fowler struck from an offside position shortly after the interval, but the shot was of the quality Eriksson will be looking for at Old Trafford. That the goal was disallowed was of no consequence because, by then, John Arne Riise had established a one-goal lead when he pounced on a rare Robert Lee mistake, slipped the ball through Andy Griffin's legs and drove a shot past a diving Shay Given.
Riise struck in the third minute, and from then on a Liverpool defence who have now secured four successive clean sheets proved so solid there was little Newcastle could do to avoid defeat. "They didn't give us a sniff," said Robson, shaking his head in frustration. "That back line was like four oak trees. We just couldn't get the ball over them.
"A team does not win five trophies in six months without having something, and that is one mean defence. I used all my bullets against them, and still I couldn't get through. They will be in the hunt for more trophies at the end of this season."
Given that victory was achieved without Michael Owen, Dietmar Hamann, both of whom were injured, and the suspended Steven Gerrard, the immediate future appears bright for Liverpool.
The secret of their success in this encounter was the fashion in which they cancelled out the threat posed by Newcastle's wide men, Laurent Robert and Nolberto Solano. While Grip may have been here to check on Fowler's progress, the performance of Jamie Carragher in taming Robert would not have gone unnoticed.
In the end Newcastle's chances were few, while Liverpool's were more frequent. Had it not been for the quick response of Given, Fowler might have scored in the first half, but there was nothing Newcastle's goalkeeper could do when Danny Murphy played a delightful one-two with Fowler before scoring Liverpool's second in the 86th minute with a terrific shot.
"It was nice to get a game," said Fowler. "I felt I got better the longer the game went on. I certainly felt sharper than I have done." The decision now rests with the England coach.
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