Liverpool Daily Post report

THE sorry sight of Michael Owen slumping to the turf clutching his hamstring should have sent Liverpool's money men scurrying to unlock the cash vaults and dust down the cheque books once again.

Having already invested heavily last summer in Gerard Houllier's Anfield Revolution, chairman David Moores and his fellow directors would be forgiven for baulking at the thought of bankrolling another costly move into the transfer market with a third of the season still to play.

But spend they must, if the clear potential of a top three Premiership finish and the hope of Champions League qualification is not to be crushed under the growing burden of the club's walking wounded.

Robbie Fowler is on crutches, Jamie Redknapp is unavailable until mid-March and serious doubts now cast a dark shadow over Owen's further participation in the campaign. Much as there is no desire to scare-monger, his regular "hamstring twinges" must be a real source of concern.

An article in Saturday's matchday programme reliably informed readers that manager Houllier is as diligent in his day-to-day monitoring of the club's injury situation as he is studious of the game's tactical nuances. So he certainly won't need to be reminded of the harsh facts surrounding Owen's plight.

For those a little less well acquainted with the brutal statistics, they show the young star has completed just six full games this season and, during a frustrating recent spell punctuated by recurring breakdowns, has managed to stay the 90 minutes three times since mid-October.

The mass groan of disappointment from the fans that greeted Owen's withdrawal after merely 26 minutes against Middlesbrough had much to do with a growing realisation that the striker's future role in Liverpool's assault on Europe this season may be equally disjointed.

Maybe this latest problem is not the left hamstring that forced him onto the sidelines last April, and maybe it is not the right hamstring that has blighted him since he limped out at Southampton in October. But it's certainly a variation on the same theme.

Houllier refused to speculate on Owen's chances of a speedy recovery - but would dearly love to have him back for Leeds on February 5 - until after the club's medical men have their say.

But there was an unlikely ally for those fans fearing the prospect of a Liverpool team-sheet without Owen's name at number 10 for a much longer spell.

Paul Ince, having delivered a verbal sledgehammer in Houllier's direction following his transfer from Liverpool to Middlesbrough last August, this time gave an all-together more constructive analysis after seeing his former team-mate forced to limp off again.

"I believe it's the third time it has happened this season and it definitely needs to be sorted out," he insisted. "In someone so young, it's a concern that the problem won't go away. Something is not quite right.

"It's okay saying it's only three or four days and then he'll be okay.

"But if it continues to happen like this, it needs to be sorted out somewhere along the line."

"Either something is going wrong, or they're not giving him the right treatment. It's obviously disappointing."

Whatever action the doctors may take, the stark reality is that Owen simply does not have enough time to regain optimum fitness this season: The fitness level that makes him such a devastating weapon in Liverpool's armoury.

During a previous spell on the sidelines, Houllier suggested the striker would need 20 games before match fitness which dictates sharpness and pace off the mark would come good.

There are just 15 fixtures remaining between now and the end of the season.

For fellow England internationals Fowler and Redknapp, the picture is obviously more bleak.

Perhaps if Liverpool were settling for a season of consolidation following all the upheavals of recent years, Houllier could be expected to soldier on until the summer without his key players.

But while European qualification, so crucial to the club's future development, is still on the cards Houllier may well be forced to consider the pros and cons of bringing in a new face to bolster his ailing attack.

Further evidence supplied by Saturday's stalemate against Middlesbrough suggests the need to inject fresh impetus is becoming acutely more pressing.

Liverpool have now failed to score in three of the last four games.

And while the 3-2 victory at relegation-threatened Watford 10 days ago was a welcome boost to the goals-for column, the prospect of imminent clashes against Leeds, Arsenal, Leicester and Manchester United is an altogether more testing one.

While a degree of merit goes to Boro for packing nine players behind the ball at regular intervals, Liverpool crucially lacked the inventiveness to break free of the visitors' predictably defensive tactics.

That's not to say the Reds lacked determination, discipline, patience and all the other virtues that have stood them in such good stead so far.

Steven Gerrard, in particular, was outstanding at the heart of the midfield in the first half as the Reds probed for openings to break the deadlock.

But the very fact it was injury time at the end of the second half before Houllier's side, short on ideas and forced to shoot from distance, managed a meaningful assault that gave hope of snatching maximum points tells its own story.

They weren't helped, of course, by the loss of Owen so early in the game.

Chasing into the box to meet Vladimir Smicer's deep cross, the young striker lunged at the ball before crashing to the ground holding his leg.

He rose to his feet before mouthing "hamstring" to the bench and signalling to be substituted, a sight that has become all to familiar this season. Substitute Erik Meijer was called on to provide the fire-power in Owen's absence, but the Reds broke beyond Boro's five-man back-line too infrequently for the Dutchman to be a real threat.

He failed to connect with a low cross from Smicer and crashed a 20-yard shot wide of Mark Schwarzer's upright in the Boro goal.

Gerrard lashed a 25-yard shot over the crossbar, while Patrik Berger and the ever-composed Dietmar Hamann fired narrowly wide.

Danny Murphy replaced David Thompson midway through the second half and Houllier brought on young star Jon Newby with 15 minutes remaining as Liverpool made a final concerted effort at smashing Boro's stubborn resistance.

Murphy's follow up to Berger's rasping drive caused a moment of panic in Boro's area as the minutes ticked away, before Gerrard had one last long-range shot charged down in injury time.

Boro, understandably cautious after a humiliating 4-1 home defeat to Derby County last weekend, rarely threatened to end Liverpool's run of eight home league games without defeat.

Brazilian star Juninho showed brief flashes of power and purpose, but their best chance fell to Ince.

Their best chance fell to Ince. For the only time in the game, Liverpool's back-line was caught square by a Boro through ball and Ince found himself clear, although blatantly offside.

The former Reds captain appeared to pause to check with referee Steve Dunn before racing towards the goal.

But keeper Sander Westerveld showed good presence of mind to halt the run with a forceful tackle outside the box.

Even the sort of refereeing inconsistencies that have caused ructions in the past failed to raise much of a murmer on an afternoon which petered out into a strangely subdued affair following Owen's withdrawal.

It was as if the fans had seen all hope dissipate as the dejected young striker trooped off the field. How many of his team-mates felt the same?

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo, Thompson (Murphy 57), Hamann, Gerrard, Berger, Owen (Meijer 27), Smicer (Newby 75). Subs: Staunton, Nielsen.

MIDDLESBROUGH (5-3-2): Schwarzer, Vickers (Gavin 69), Festa, Pallister, Cooper, Fleming, Summerbell, Ince, Mustoe, Campbell (Ricard 83), Juninho. Subs: Beresford, Maddison, Kilgannon.

Bookings: For Middlesbrough - Ince, Juninho (Both fouls).

Referee: Steve Dunn (Bristol).

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post report

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