Inspired by Steven Gerrard, that action man of an anchorman, and the goals of Emile Heskey and Danny Murphy, Liverpool's victory over feisty Fulham at Loftus Road yesterday had 'Made In England' stamped all over it. Liverpool's joy was tempered only by the doubts swirling around over the future of their most celebrated lion, Michael Owen.
For sustained periods, particularly in the first half, Liverpool's flowing football was of the calibre that might persuade Owen to sign a new contract. Rising three places up the Premiership table to seventh might also encourage an attacking talent coveted by the Continent's finest that Liverpool really are moving in the right direction.
But Gerard Houllier's side need to maintain such upward mobility; no one is realistically expecting them to challenge for the title this season but they may need to claim a Champions League place to guarantee Owen's loyalty. Such a gifted individual needs to be performing on the greatest club stage of all.
Owen has 18 months remaining on his contract, the usual trigger-point in the post-Bosman era where clubs begin either renegotiating or consider selling before the player's value diminishes drastically. While the uncertainty persists, Owen will continue to be linked to stellar-clubs like Real Madrid, as he was yesterday for £25 million. "Even if the figures were in reverse (£52 million), we wouldn't consider it," insisted Houllier. "No one from Real Madrid has phoned me."
Bernabeu's power brokers, primarily the president Florentino Perez, are known to be pursuing another famous forward to join their galacticos. Castillian eyes are reportedly on the Premiership but focused more in the direction of Manchester United's Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Arsenal's Thierry Henry. How a new striker would fit in alongside Ronaldo and Raul only Perez can explain.
Houllier is determined to keep Owen. "I think Michael is keen to stay," said the Liverpool manager. "The fans know Michael wants to stay. Michael will not do a Steve McManaman [and run down his contract]. We trust in Michael and care for him.
"Michael will look at the vision of the club, the quality of the facilities and the staff. He is only 23; his best days will come at 27. All the talk about his contract won't distract him. He's very strong willed. He can be on the front pages and back pages and it won't distract him."
Owen was distracted by his swollen ankle but Liverpool still dominated for half an hour, playing crisp, one-passing football to the delight of their huge following. Fulham, with a 4-1-4-1 away approach in their home from home, were in far more cautious, counter-attacking mood, flooding midfield and looking to support the lone Louis Saha.
When Heskey struck after 17 minutes, Liverpool looked destined for a comfortable afternoon. The goal was a gem, Heskey meeting Steve Finnan's right-wing cross with a powerful volley that swept past Mark Crossley, who was deputising for the injured Edwin van der Sar.
A more prolific creature of late, Heskey's improvement can almost be dated back to his half-time altercation with Hasan Sas and company in Turkey. He went into the tunnel a boy and came out a man. But old habits die hard for Heskey; a player who looks like he was born with a limp bruised a toe yesterday and hobbled around for an hour.
Effectively reduced to 10 players with Liverpool convinced Heskey would run off his minor injury, the visitors became vulnerable. Fulham moved up a gear, unleashing runners down the flanks, particularly the lively Moritz Volz, whose 38th-minute dash carried play into Liverpool's box. Steed Malbranque, one of the players of the Premiership season, took over, crossing low and hard. The ball deflected off Gerrard to the unmarked Saha, who scored from five yards.
Suitably inspired, Saha enjoyed one of his purple patches, twice testing Jerzy Dudek. Frustration set into Liverpool; Murphy caught Malbranque so badly he flirted with dismissal. Heskey and Owen then traipsed from the fray, introducing Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle, the latter's pace winning a penalty from the otherwise excellent Zat Knight on the cusp of full-time. Murphy stroked the ball smoothly past Crossley.
Moments later, Sinama-Pongolle was chopped down so nastily by Luis Boa Morte that the French teenager almost completed a somersault while spinning through the air. "It was a horrific challenge," conceded Chris Coleman, Fulham's admirable manager. "We will be disciplining Luis. But I also thought the challenge [by Murphy] on Malbranque was high, catching him around the back of the knee. I was not happy with the referee."
Fulham: Crossley, Bonnissel, Melville, Volz, Knight, Pembridge (Djetou 21), Clark, Legwinski, Malbranque, Boa Morte, Saha (Hayles 86).
Subs Not Used: Beasant, Sean Davis, Buari.
Sent Off: Boa Morte (90).
Booked: Boa Morte.
Goals: Saha 40.
Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan, Hyypia, Biscan (Henchoz 66), Traore, Smicer, Murphy, Gerrard, Kewell, Heskey (Le Tallec 82), Owen (Sinama Pongolle 77).
Subs Not Used: Kirkland, Hamann.
Goals: Heskey 17, Murphy 89 pen.
Ref: R Styles (Hampshire).
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