LEEDS UNITED'S hopes of making it a four-horse race at the top of the Premiership receded at Elland Road last night, their recent record-equalling canter slowed to a draw by a hard-working if hardly high-calibre Liverpool side.
Leeds now lie four points behind third-placed Chelsea, five behind Arsenal and six adrift of Manchester United, although David O'Leary's promising side have to play them all over the next few weeks. Needing victory to set a club-record eight successive top-flight wins, Leeds were never at their best in a match of limited appeal.
A shapeless, hapless half was notable only and sadly for the departure of Michael Owen, who pulled up lame as he accelerated in pursuit of Steve McManaman's through ball. Liverpool's physio, Mark Leather, worked hard on Owen's right hamstring but eventually bowed to the inevitable and Owen limped down the tunnel.
Owen's season has been pockmarked by injury - this was his third bout of hamstring problems since the World Cup - yet he has managed to lead the goalscoring lists, although Dwight Yorke, with 16, can now close on Owen's 18. Even if Owen was removed simply as a precaution last night, doubts must exist over his availability for England's friendly in Hungary on April 28.
Whether Owen's attacking accomplice, Robbie Fowler, who showed only sporadic signs of his talent in a disappointing first half, climbs aboard the flight to Budapest remains to be seen. If Fowler today decides not to pursue his appeal against his six-match ban, as seems sensible and likely, then his suspension commences on the morning England depart for Hungary.
This could lead to tension between the England coach, Kevin Keegan, and the FA. Lancaster Gate can hardly approve of a player serving a high-profile domestic suspension representing England. Yet the forward options available to Keegan reduced further yesterday with news of Chris Sutton's groin complaint and then Owen's exit.
As Owen disappeared, Karlheinz Riedle joined the action, bringing yet another enforced change to a Liverpool line-up already lacking Rigobert Song, Steve Staunton and Vegard Heggem. The make-shift defence was tested by Leeds' clever Australian, Harry Kewell, who clearly fancied his chances against Steven Gerrard.
Twice towards the end of the half, Kewell, who provides the extra dimension to Leeds' 4-3-3 formation, tricked his way past Gerrard. Kewell lifted his first cross to the far post but David James should still have cut out the danger. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink met the ball but was denied by Dominic Matteo on the line. Hasselbaink then thumped the ball wide, following more good approach play by Kewell.
Liverpool, although showing some welcome commitment, were still lacklustre and were never allowed to settle by Leeds' three hard-working midfielders, David Batty, David Hopkin and Lee Bowyer. Liverpool's few moments of first-half promise fell to Riedle, who wasted a fine Jamie Redknapp corner and then failed to make contact with Fowler's cross-shot.
A woeful half's only moment of pure entertainment arrived when a replacement ball was required. None could be found by Leeds so Gerard Houllier quickly rummaged in a Liverpool kit-bag to produce one of his own. "You've only got one ball," chanted the Liverpool fans.
The uninspiring fare continued after the break. Mistakes were as regular as chances were rare. Hasselbaink at least demanded a low stop from James, whose long kick was then flicked on by Riedle towards Fowler, whose shot was held.
Liverpool, to their credit, looked a more capable unit in the second half and produced a flowing 75th-minute move, the ball gliding from Ince to McManaman to Patrik Berger and finally to Riedle, whose header flew wide. Leeds came back with Bowyer firing over and James needed to dive at the feet of Alan Smith.
Half-Time : 0-0.
Booked: Berger (90 mins).
Attendance : 39,451.
Team (4-4-2): James, Gerrard, Babb, Carragher, Matteo, McManaman, Ince, Berger, Redknapp, Fowler, Owen (Riedle 25).
Substitutes (not used): Ferri, Thompson, Bjornebye, Friedel.
Referee : P. Jones (Loughborough).
League position: 9th (44 points after 31 matches).
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