Fowler and Liverpool gain a little confidence

When Robbie Fowler promised a few days ago that he would live like a monk to prolong his second chance of a Liverpool career, those of us who remember his past excesses wondered if he had Rasputin in mind.

Whether or not he has undergone a religious conversion on his road to Damascus, or at least the road to Wigan Pier, Fowler is clearly a changed man from the one who would admit to falling below professional standards during what should have been the most important years of his career. With the golden years gone, he is now On Golden Pond, but seemingly determined not to spend time once again skating on thin ice at Anfield.

Only on contract until the end of the season, Fowler ran himself into the ground here, literally so on the bog of a JJB pitch, if somewhat superior to the ones at more famous stadiums, before coming off after 66 minutes.

His only chance to record his first goal since his return was a tame header into Mike Pollitt's arms, but he fashioned a wonderful left-wing cross from which Fernando Morientes should have sealed the game on 44 minutes.

Having been let off the hook, Wigan proceeded to put Liverpool on it in the second half, forcing Jerzy Dudek into a fine save from Andreas Johansson and another scrambling clearance when Sami Hyypia allowed Matt Jackson's cross to squelch past him. Remarkably, seeing that Wigan had to pull teenager Luke Joyce from their youth team to make up the numbers on the bench and that, in the words of manager Paul Jewell, "We haven't got a striker in the building", they actually outplayed Liverpool in the second half.

To Jewell's annoyance, he also did not have a Senegalese forward in the building, Henri Camara having somehow landed in Paris rather than Wigan, an easy mistake to make, after returning from the African Cup of Nations. Jewell said: "I'm very disappointed he didn't come back," understandably so since Wigan had laid on a flight, "but I'm only prepared to talk about players who give their all for this club, the ones here today."

Jewell, who rightly claimed that his team pushed Liverpool all the way in front of the JJB's record crowd, said that he had spent all week devising a plan to win. But the best-laid plans and all that, he could not have envisaged Hyypia, who had not scored a Premiership goal for 10 months, winning the game with the sort of clinical finish worthy of Fowler. Nor could he have imagined that Jamie Carragher, with his back to goal, would have supplied the chance with a thumping overhead kick.

Even Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, who likes to believe that he has control over every detail of his team's play, said: "I was surprised by the goal. That is not normal. But this was an important win for the confidence of the team after recent results, especially with a lot of important games coming up."

For Liverpool, mauled at Stamford Bridge last Sunday and then humiliated by Charlton in midweek, this was a first win in five, suggesting their long, exhausting season is taking its toll.

Wigan, with only one win from six Premiership games, are also beginning to feel the pace and still need one more point to reach their pre-season target of 40, even if they are already safe from relegation. When Jason Roberts returns from suspension, David Connolly and Lee McCulloch return from injury and Camara returns from Paris, their push for European football may benefit.

Yet for all their stirling, spirited efforts in the league, one feels that their Carling Cup final against Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium in two weeks' time will provide not just the highlight of their extraordinary season but their best chance of getting into Europe.

As for Liverpool, struggling to make and convert chances, we will get a better idea of their prospects of retaining their Champions League crown and maintaining their pursuit of second-placed Manchester United after their next few fixtures. United are the Anfield visitors in the FA Cup on Saturday, followed by a trip to Benfica three days later.

Before that is Tuesday's Premiership home match against Arsenal, against whom Fowler, known as "God" to Liverpool fans, seems to have a divine right to score. He once scored a hat-trick against them in four minutes. Sol Campbell may not be the only Gunners defender with psychological problems after that encounter.

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