Hammers burst revival bubble
Houllier defends his striking star as it proves too easy to make Owen the scapegoat
QUITE what heinous crime Michael Owen has inflicted on the nation is anybody's guess. But to borrow a metaphor used recently by Scotland midfielder John Collins upon his retirement from international football, Owen must feel as though he has murdered someone such was the enmity that oozed from every pore of Upton Park on Saturday.
Castigated by the referee, pilloried by the home fans, mocked by Harry Redknapp and persecuted by the national media, Liverpool's teenage striker will want to forget this one in a hurry.
Much of the antipathy centred around a penalty-box flashpoint between Owen and Neil Ruddock, in which the youngster went from victim to villain on the flash of a referee's yellow card.
Of far greater concern, however, is the tangible hostility building against Owen. It's not yet the sort of evil hate that follows David Beckham or the illogical barracking that hounds Alan Shearer. But we're getting there.
In common with those two, Owen is also an England star of no mean talent. But it appears he, too, is fast becoming a scapegoat for the country's continued failure to recreate the dizzy heights of '66 and all that.
The reaction against players like Shearer, Beckham and now Owen is more than just the normal terrace banter that attempts to unsettle talented visiting players at away grounds. And it's more than that peculiar British pastime of building people up, only to knock them down again.
It seems playing for the national team breeds a fierce resentment of the very qualities that made the player so highly regarded in the first place. And it's resentment fuelled by the national media.
Newcastle manager Bobby Robson clearly felt the need last week to launch a spirited defence of Shearer in the wake of the Euro 2000 showdowns against Scotland.
And Liverpool boss Gerrard Houllier saw the time was right to come out in support of Owen after Saturday's defeat at West Ham.
Pinned into a corner of the Upton Park reception by a scrum of tabloid journalists, Houllier was being subjected to a round of rapid-fire questioning the intent of which was to gain an admission that Owen had dived following Ruddock's tackle late in the first-half.
At this point, Houllier gave the sort of full-blooded testimonial that will make Owen realise he has the support of those who really matter.
"A lot of people have been praising Michael, filling the newspapers with hype and saying he is the best," rapped Houllier.
"Then because he is not on top of his game for England against Scotland, because he was still making his comeback from injury, suddenly he is taking more of the backlash than the rest.
"Others didn't play that well against Scotland, but we should remember Michael had been out for a long time injured before those matches.
"Although England qualified for Euro 2000, the fans are not happy because the team did not play too good. Alan Shearer has also had criticism, but I think it's all a bit unfair.
"Michael will come through this, though. He's a very strong-willed player and he will overcome this difficult period.
"What Michael needs to know is that he has the support and backing of all his team-mates. He's only a young player, and he can't always enjoy good times. But he is making the effort, he's staying focused and this experience will make him a better player."
England coach Kevin Keegan should take his share of the blame for Owen's predicament. Owen has been plagued by hamstring injuries since last April, but was deemed fit enough by a desperate Keegan to lead England's front-line against the Scots alongside Shearer.
However, anybody who saw Owen's last Liverpool performance before the Scotland games - against Derby County at Anfield - could have told Keegan the player was in no condition to play for his country in such high-pressure matches.
Sluggish and laboured, he was clearly uncomfortable and had not regained the blistering pace which is such an integral facet of his game.
In truth, Owen does still not appear fully recovered. But such is Liverpool's need for fit strikers at present, Houllier is caught in the same dilemma and had little choice but to play him against West Ham.
With Robbie Fowler still recovering from ankle surgery and both Titi Camara and Vladimir Smicer also sidelined, Owen was left to plough a solitary furrow against the Hammers' three-man back line. Danny Murphy played a deeper role between and attack and midfield.
It's a tactic which has worked with a degree of success in the past, but Owen was given little scope to manoeuvre by the burly central defensive combination of Ruddock, Rio Ferdinand and Javier Margas.
Only once did he manage to use his speed and guile to full effect, in the controversial 43rd minute incident which led to referee Graham Barber booking him for allegedly diving.
Chasing a through ball, Owen looked all set to force his way beyond the back-line until Ruddock came clattering across the penalty area, TV replays later proved inconclusive, but Ruddock appeared to clip Owen's heel with his trailing leg and the striker crashed to the floor.
But by the time he had returned to his feet, Ruddock was protesting that Owen had cheated and referee Barber was influenced enough by his whinging to reach for the yellow card. Ruddock likes to promote a self-styled, hard-man image; but hard men don't run crying to Sir.
Hammers' manager Redknapp insisted Ruddock had not made contact with Owen, offering the suggestion the striker had "tripped over his feet."
Houllier did not see the incident clearly enough, but was impassioned in his defence. "Michael is not a cheat," he said. "I don't think he should be given that sort of reputation.
"For a young lad, and for the physique he has, I think Michael gets pushed a lot and faces a lot of physical toughness. But he withstands that very well. People should look at that side of his game more.
"He's very quick, so when he turns players either he gets through or he falls; I don't think he dived. If you can't protect the strikers, we have a problem in football.
"Michael is a very honest character and it is not my philosophy to encourage diving."
Within a minute, Ruddock was celebrating with his team-mates at the other end as Trevor Sinclair grabbed the fortunate goal that would ultimately clinch the win and end Liverpool's six-match unbeaten run.
Steve Lomas popped up on the left flank and crossed for Paulo Di Canio to hit a first time shot which keeper Sander Westerveld could only parry. The ball fell to Sinclair just five yards out and he bundled home as the defence stood watching.
Liverpool could have been a goal up themselves mid-way through the first half, when Owen curled a shot straight into the hands of Hammers' keeper Shaka Hislop after intercepting a poor back-pass.
Owen did have the ball in the net after just seven minutes of the second half, but again referee Barber denied the Reds.
Rigobert Song crossed deep from the right flank and Thompson stretched at the far post to deliver the ball back to the penalty spot where Owen headed home. Barber ruled the ball had gone out of play as Thompson reached for his touch, but overhead camera replays later showed the whole of the ball had not crossed the line.
Liverpool, upset by the withdrawal of Patrik Berger with an ankle injury following Sinclair's late challenge after only 15 minutes, showed more urgency after the break.
With captain Jamie Redknapp sidelined for the first time this season, teenager Steven Gerrard had joined Dietmar Hamman in the middle of the park to good effect.
Liverpool's midfield worked tirelessly, but ultimately the Reds paid for the lack of a cutting edge. The absence of a real forward thrust is understandable when considering Smicer, Camara, Redknapp and Fowler are all out.
And it wasn't until the burly Erik Meijer replaced Song 20 minutes from time to relieve Owen of his solitary attacking duties, that Liverpool really shook up the well-drilled home side.
But even then, injuries conspired to deny Liverpool and chance of stability up front. Owen fell awkwardly in the 75th minute after leaping for a header and asked to be substituted shortly after.
First impressions suggested a return of the hamstring problems on his right leg, but Houllier later insisted he was merely suffering from cramp.
Liverpool piled forward in the final 10 minutes, with Thompson, Murphy and Gerrard all threatening.
But West Ham came closest to scoring, Di Canio hitting the upright with a header and Paulo Wanchope firing the loose ball hopelessly over the crossbar under pressure from Vegard Heggem.
Another goal at that point would have been an injustice to Liverpool, who were only undone because the defence let it's guard down at a crucial time. There was no way even Owen could be blamed for that one.
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