Michael Owen is in severe danger of having more big games than hot dinners. After scoring a hat-trick on Saturday to put daylight between Liverpool and the chasing Champions League pack, the England striker looked ahead to his season's tumultuous finale. The FA and Uefa Cup finals may whet his appetite, he said, but a top three finish remains the priority.
"This is probably the biggest fortnight of games in which I've played since the World Cup," said Owen, whose goal tally for an injury-interrupted campaign stands at an impressive 19. "If we can win one more match we will be in the Champions League. If we don't finish in the top three our main aim at the beginning of the season would be out of the window, but we're now only one very good performance away."
That display should come against Chelsea at Anfield tomorrow night, when a win should guarantee Gérard Houllier's side third place. "There's an air of confidence here now, but all our success is just potential at the moment," added the striker. "If the season stopped now we'd consider it to have been very good, but it could yet be brilliant - a season that no one dreamt of at the start of the year."
Bobby Robson's side should have known better than to visit Merseyside with Owen and Liverpool in such riotous form. The striker has developed a knack of knackering Newcastle - he has scored 12 times in six games against the Toon, most courtesy of blistering pace and a cool finish. The visitors had already survived one scare within the opening two minutes before Markus Babbel split Andy O'Brien and Nicos Dabizas, allowing Owen to advance and clip the ball beyond Shay Given.
"That ruined the first half for us," said Robson. "We'd told our centre-halves not to let Owen get in behind them - he's a will-o'-the-wisp player - but then Dabizas falls asleep, the young boy spins off and slots it away. You've got a story about Michael Owen; I've got a story about defenders not being alert."
Given was lucky not to concede a second in first-half stoppage time when he scuffed a clearance to Gary McAllister. The Scot gathered the gift, deliberated as to how he should unwrap his sixth goal in six games and promptly saw his shot saved.
Having escaped, Newcastle's second half rally reaped no greater reward than a Nolberto Solano header scrambled off the line by Stephane Henchoz but, with Liverpool strangely flustered, Houllier introduced Patrik Berger. Three minutes later the Czech sent Owen scurrying away to sink the black and white revival. Another substitute, Robbie Fowler, lofted the ball from his own half for the 21-year-old to flick in off the far post and claim his second hat-trick ball of the season.
"I feel stronger and faster again," said Owen. "The head injury I sustained at Derby kept me out for a while earlier in the season and trying to get back after a long lay-off is always hard. But now I'm using my pace to break through and score more often. Emile Heskey's reached 20 for the season, and it would be nice to follow his lead.
"In saying that, you don't score a hat-trick without the help of your team-mates. The back four were outstanding and the midfielders were superb; you can make all the runs you want, but if you don't get the ball you don't score."
Of those behind him, Dietmar Hamann played the least eye-catching role yet retained an imperious air, strutting around Anfield with such assurance as to make the visiting fans' cat-calls sound ridiculous. The German, a former Newcastle player, hovered in front of his back four and kept things simple; without Robert Lee, United cried out for someone to emulate his classy but calm head.
"We have improved mentally this season; we're stronger, more focused and disciplined in our game," added Houllier. "The motivation of the team is shown whenever we don't have the ball. There's a real desire and resolve to reach our targets and we're developing all the time. But for the moment the game with Chelsea is another cup final. We've done it once; we can do it again."
Man of the match Dietmar Hamann
The Liverpool central midfielder's defensive duties and busy passes allowed those in front to supply Michael Owen with ammunition. The visiting fans taunted: "There's only one greedy German" as Hamann simply gobbled up possession.
Moment of the match: His tackle in the second minute allowed Emile Heskey to send Owen away. The striker missed, but the tone was set for a profitable afternoon.
Liverpool (1) 3 - 0 (0) Newcastle
Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Gerrard (Murphy), Hamann, McAllister; Heskey (Fowler), Owen, Smicer (Berger).
Given; Barton, Dabizas, Hughes, O'Brien; Acuna (Bassedas), Quinn, Solano, Speed; Cort (Ameobi), Gallacher (Tresor Lua Lua).
Referee: M. R. Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Newcastle United: Acuna (6) Dabizas (34)
Newcastle United: 10
Newcastle United: 1
Newcastle United: 6
Newcastle United: 3
Newcastle United: 0
Newcastle United: 3
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001