WHO would dare drop Michael Owen now?

WHO would dare drop Michael Owen now? That is the question Liverpool and England fans will be debating this morning after the young striker tormented Aston Villa with a first-half hat-trick which proved once and for all the statement Premiership defences will dread hearing: Owen is back.

And how. His clinical finishing ultimately proved the difference as Gerard Houllier's side eased to what became a comfortable victory to banish the demons of the Dell.

Just as they did ten days ago, thanks to Owen, Liverpool had gone three goals ahead. Like then, the scoreline flattered Liverpool. But unlike then, they shut up shop and although Villa's Steve Stone conjured a fine goal late on, there was never any chance of a repeat of their surrender against Southampton.

Owen certainly knows how to make his point. The 20-year-old, smarting from being relegated to the substitutes' bench in the Monday night showdown with Arsenal, responded with a two-goal brace at Southampton five days later.

Having been overlooked by Kevin Keegan in favour of Andy Cole, he came off the bench to rescue a point for England in France.

And last night, perhaps nagged by calls in some quarters that the Manchester United man should continue to lead the line for his country, Owen served up a lesson in finishing to make it six goals in three games and leave watching Germany manager Rudi Voller whose side face England in a World Cup qualifier next month with ample food for thought.

As Owen lapped up the crowd's adulation at the final whistle, he spared a moment to embrace a glum-looking David James a moment which neatly encapsulated the previous 90 minutes.

While Owen was the hero, James was undoubtedly the villain.

The former Liverpool man had a nightmare. Two of the goals were directly due to his mistake and he looked uneasy throughout. No wonder he was afforded such a warm welcome by the Anfield faithful before kick-off.

Aside from Owen, talk before the game had revolved around Villa new boy David Ginola and his reunion with nemesis Houllier but in the event the former Tottenham man was consigned to the bench.

With new signing Christian Ziege short of match fitness, Houllier kept faith with young Frenchman Djimi Traore at left-back.

Heskey returned to attack after shrugging off the knee injury which kept him out of the 3-3 draw at Southampton and England's friendly in France. He took the place of Nick Barmby, who was feeling the effects of his exploits in Paris at the weekend, as Liverpool experimented with a 4-3-1-2 formation using Vladimir Smicer in a free role behind the front two. And it didn't take long for the tactical switch to pay dividends.

Stephane Henchoz had already seen a header whistle inches over the bar when the home side took the lead on five minutes.

It was a goal that owed everything to the power and pace of Heskey. Intercepting a stray pass from Gareth Southgate, he bustled past Gareth Barry and George Boateng before making his way to the by-line. Looking up, he cut the ball back to the advancing Owen, who beat Ugo Ehiogu to bundle the ball home.

Villa responded almost instantly and Henchoz was called upon to make a saving challenge on Luc Nilis. From the following attack, Sander Westerveld saved well from Dublin's flick after Nilis had been allowed time to cross from the left.

The action was relentless in the early stages as both sides pressed forward, and on 12 minutes Liverpool's lead was doubled with a goal which bore the all-too-familiar hallmark of 'Calamity James.'

Another corner was floated in by Smicer and James began to wander off his line in the hope of collecting the cross. However, realising there was no chance of reaching the ball, the keeper began to retreat. Too late. With the Villa defence on the backfoot through their custodian's indecision, an unmarked Owen was allowed all the time in the world to head home the second.

The glare from incensed Villa boss John Gregory a self-confessed Robert De Niro fan was real Godfather stuff. You wouldn't have wanted to be poor James during the half-time briefing.

Far from reeling at the early setback, Villa hit back and the effervescent Merson created another chance for Nilis which Westerveld held.

Liverpool, though, were irresistible in attack, Owen and Heskey wreaking havoc among the Villa back line and ably supported by schemer Smicer, revelling in his free role behind the front two.

It was a worry, then, when the Czech was forced out of proceedings on 17 minutes, gingerly holding his hamstring. Houllier will be hoping his medical team can make swift repairs, because on this evidence only injury seems like stopping him.

Two goals to the good and with the late capitulation against Southampton still fresh in the memory, Liverpool were on their guard against complacency.

But with the Villa attack ably led by Dublin always a threat, there was never a chance of the home side being lulled into a false sense of security.

Westerveld was forced to tip over a curling corner from Merson on 23 minutes, and two minutes later the same player provided a teasing cross which Dublin beat Henchoz to but headed wastefully wide.

Villa's supporters, encouraged by their side's revival, found new voice but were silenced 12 minutes before the interval when the two main protagonists of the evening collided once again.

A long ball over the top gave Owen a chance to exploit his lightning pace against Villa centre-back Alpay. Having beaten the Turk, the striker still looked second favourite against James. However, the former Liverpool man somehow let the ball squirm from his grasp, giving Owen the easiest of tap-ins to complete his hat-trick.

Poor old James. Right in front of the Kop, too. In the director's box, Gregory was reaching apoplexy.

It is perhaps best that the Villa manager's response is not recorded when his side were denied a penalty just before the break. Dublin seemed to be held by Henchoz in the area as they jumped for a ball, but referee Neale Barry waved play on, leading to the Villa striker taking his shirt off and offering it his Swiss opponent in disgust. The second half brought little respite for the visitors. A sweeping combination between Gerrard, Barmby and Owen gave the latter a chance for a fourth which he inexplicably side-footed over the crossbar.

James' nightmare return continued and on 53 minutes he had Southgate to thank after the centre-back performed heroics on the line when Barmby had beaten the keeper to a through ball. For all their possession, Liverpool still looked a little uneasy at the back against the physical prowess of Dublin and the wing play of Stone and Barry in particular. Villa had clearly earmarked the flanks as a possible weak point and Houllier countered by withdrawing Barmby who was a direct replacement for Smicer earlier on to a conventional right-sided midfield role.

Ginola finally made a belated entrance on 68 minutes, and a few Liverpool nerves were frayed eight minutes before time when Stone played a one-two with Dublin on the edge of the area before beating Westerveld with a shot into the top corner to pull a goal back. But by then the game was up. Liverpool closed down the midfield, tightened their defence and with Westerveld showing more aptitude at dealing with the high ball than of recent weeks, there was never any possibility of surrendering the three points.

Now it's the turn of Joe Royle's Manchester City on Saturday. Houllier had pinpointed this week's Anfield double-header as two games his side must win if they were to maintain a title challenge at this early stage. So far, so good. And with Owen hitting form, things can only get better.

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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