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Liverpool Daily Post report

BONJOUR Emile Heskey, au revoir Robbie Fowler or Michael Owen! That scenario certainly suits the conspiracy theorists following the Leicester striker's much-vaunted arrival at Liverpool last week.

Indeed, no sooner was Heskey through the door on Friday then a glut of speculation re-surfaced linking Fowler with a double-quick move away from Anfield.

Arsenal, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Inter Milan even, all want their hands on one of the finest attackers of his generation. Sure they do, who wouldn't?

With such juicy gossip being pedalled with alarming ardour, it certainly wouldn't do to suggest maybe, just maybe, there's a successful future ahead at Liverpool for all three players.

The actual hard evidence of the last few days is sufficient re-assurance that neither Fowler nor Owen are about to beat hasty retreats.

The carefully-chosen words of manager Gerard Houllier are as good a place as any to start.

The astute Frenchman, who knows glory doesn't come without quality strikers, has been at pains to insist he bought Heskey to complement rather than replace.

Liverpool have paid the price, in league position and FA Cup progress, for being short of numbers in this key area this season.

Having bemoaned the absence of Fowler and Owen for crucial spells through injury, it was only natural Houllier should seek to strengthen that position.

Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea - the clubs Liverpool are trying to catch up to - all have four or five class strikers to maintain their relentless challenge. At last Liverpool are in the same enviable situation.

It would be nonsense to suggest Fowler or Owen may not move away at some stage. The natural temptation of a new challenge or the desire for a change of scenery, can always prove too strong.

But it is equally ludicrous to claim that now Houllier has added to the squad, he's planning to gleefully show one of his strikers - an England one at that - the exit door.

Saturday's game should also be enough to convince the sceptics there is a place on the team-sheet for Heskey, Fowler and Owen.

Heskey's exciting debut, just 24 hours after putting pen-to-paper on his club record 11m pounds transfer from the Midlands, was almost everything it had promised to be.

The 22-year-old, determined and resourceful, clearly brings a powerful new dimension to Liverpool's game. The Reds as a whole suffered from playing far too deep, but that only served to highlight Heskey's ability to break from near the half-way line, either right or left side, and blitz the opposition with powerful runs into positions that can have a devastating impact.

Once there, he despatched accurate, deliveries into the box that have the potential to cause mayhem. Crucially, those centres were low and fast - the toughest for defenders to deal with.

Only one on Saturday was met with any sort of presence in the Sunderland area, and Erik Meijer lifted that over the crossbar.

But the likelihood of Fowler and Owen prowling around the box to meet those crosses should induce eager anticipation.

Full-backs Dominic Matteo and Rigobert Song appeared to revel in setting Heskey free down the flanks with long, rangy passes which he chased with intent. Heskey's failure to illuminate the afternoon with a goal was churlishly condemned in some quarters. His career average of one-in-four games, even if it improves, will always be something of a millstone.

But if he builds on this sort of form, his goal return will be of no consequence.

And there lies the crux of the issue. Heskey, the striker, may occupy an advanced role ahead of the midfield, but that is where the comparisons with Fowler and Owen should stop. He is more the provider. That is why there will be no conflict with Fowler and Owen's long-term Anfield futures.

It is improbable Heskey will be the penalty-box figurehead some may have envisaged, but the quality of the service he will provide will far outweigh his personal goal tally.

Fans had their first taste of Heskey's match-winning potential after only three minutes on Saturday.

Having taken so long to ultimately settle his protracted on-off transfer to Merseyside, it seemed almost indecent to keep those supporters waiting any longer.

The Kop had hardly rolled up their banners after a rousing pre-match rendition of You�ll Never Walk Alone, before Heskey had earned a penalty.

Set free by Song, Heskey ran ragged left-back Darren Williams before collapsing in the box under the weight of the defender's shirt-pulling as he attempted to round him close to the by-line.

Heskey does go down easily for a big man. But referee Graham Poll still felt he had been more of the victim in this particular tit-for-tat encounter and awarded the spot-kick.

Patrik Berger stepped up to successfully despatch the penalty.

With Sunderland arriving with no wins in the previous 11 games and just three points from a possible 27, the early breakthrough should have signalled an onslaught from Liverpool.

However, Heskey apart, Houllier's side flattered to deceive, failed to make their mark in midfield, and struggled to maintain any head of steam.

Centre-half Sami Hyypia was off target with a couple of headers from corners, midfielder Dietmar Hamann blasted one shot wide and forced Sunderland goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen to tip one over.

The introduction of Owen off the substitutes' bench in the 76th minute gave him too little time to work to any great effect and certainly did not allow him to link to any degree with Heskey.

Then there was referee Poll, whose bungling almost stole the show. Poll, the Tring-based sales manager, has previous. He was the official who awarded the hotly-disputed free-kick which helped send Liverpool crashing out the FA Cup at Old Trafford last season.

Afterwards he inflamed a tinderbox situation by saying he was disappointed security staff had not allowed Reds' assistant boss Phil Thompson access to his dressing room to congratulate him on his "excellent performance."

He was also at the centre of a controversial tunnel bust-up between former Reds midfielder Paul Ince and Graeme Le Saux at Stamford Bridge.

His decisions have prompted public displays of outrage from far too many players to mention. At one stage he even admitted he feared for his safety after being subjected to a torrent of abuse after an FA Cup Final between Man Utd and Newcastle.

Hardly surprising, really. His most outrageous decision at Anfield surrounded a free-kick he gave to Sunderland on the edge of their box - after Liverpool midfielder Hamann had been brought to ground.

Even Sunderland boss Peter Reid was prompted to make a very public show of astonishment, holding his head in his hands and gesturing to the home supporters behind the dug-out.

Liverpool were less enamoured with his ruling that substitute Danny Murphy was offside when he turned Berger's low cross into the net nine minutes into the second half. While Berger had played a forward pass, Murphy, who had replaced the ineffectual Steven Gerrard at half-time, appeared to time his run from behind the defence.

Three minutes later, Meijer also had an effort ruled offside.

Liverpool could also be a touch annoyed with the 77th-minute penalty award which allowed Sunderland to grab a point.

There was a clear belief Kevin Phillips was offside when he ran through to connect with Niall Quinn's knock-down after Song had been wrong-footed, but there was no doubting Reds' keeper Sander Westerveld chopped down the nippy striker with a lunging tackle.

Phillips picked himself up to despatch the spot-kick to claim his 25th goal of the season.

Sunderland had otherwise hardly troubled Liverpool's back-line. That lack of chances for the visitors made the late penalty all the more galling.

Poll's inept performance meant he was roundly booed off the pitch, and momentarily deflected the spotlight from Heskey. Who said all the clowns were in the circus?

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Song (Camara 82), Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo, Gerrard (Murphy 45), Hamann, Carragher, Berger, Meijer (Owen 76), Heskey. Subs: Staunton, Friedel.

SUNDERLAND (4-4-1-1): Sorensen, Holloway, Craddock, Williams, Makin, Rae, Thirlwell, Schwarz, Kilbane, Phillips, Quinn. Subs: Butler, Summerbee, Marriott, Roy, Reddy.

Bookings: For Liverpool - Gerrard, Carragher (fouls); For Sunderland - Makin (dissent), Thirlwell (foul).

Referee: Graham Poll (Tring).

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post

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