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Owen rekindles Liverpool hope

It struck Anfield without warning and seemed to take everyone by surprise, but for 25 compelling minutes, Liverpool looked exactly like a team worthy of a place in the Champions League. And, intriguingly, the main benefactor of this sumptuous cameo was not Liverpool's hangdog manager or their disillusioned fans but Michael Owen, who buried two goals before Blackburn had drawn breath.

While Steven Gerrard assumed the England captaincy for the first time in Sweden, Owen was kept at home by his oldest enemy - an unreliable hamstring. While Gerrard has managed to flourish in a Liverpool team that has struggled, Owen has looked isolated. But if we needed any proof that Liverpool's No 10 is the man to lead the country's attack this summer then Owen provided it in Technicolour yesterday.

He scored both goals during an opening spell of domination, the first after seven minutes, and went close when he ran on to a flick from Emile Heskey two minutes later. Heskey was a useful accomplice throughout and the other supporting elements in the attacking ensemble were not far behind either. El-Hadji Diouf and Harry Kewell supplied from right and left, switched wings and tackled back.

It was that sort of day at Anfield. The sort that makes Gerard Houllier feel safe to step out of his dugout to direct operations and afterwards deliver a pugnacious defence of his regime. If his team, who move back up to fourth place with their biggest win of the season, looked relaxed then their manager is still teetering on the edge. He finished his after-match briefing with an attack on what he described as the "garbage" about his side in the local press.

"I think we started the game extremely well and it was over by 25 minutes," Houllier said. "It was a strong, powerful, determined performance. We've played as well as that and not got the result this season. This time we got a performance and a result."

The Liverpool manager would be too polite to mention it but his side were up against a dreadful Blackburn team who have now fallen to within three points of the relegation zone and have a crucial match against Leeds on Saturday. Graeme Souness offered the simple assessment that his team had been "well and truly banged up" by their opponents. But there is a serious subtext to Blackburn's season.
"We had a plan to frustrate them because they're under pressure at home to come at us," Souness said. "The big picture for us is that we find ourselves in a very precarious position and losing by four goals today doesn't help our cause. We have to believe we're good enough to stay up. I believe in our players and it's stand-up-and-be-counted time."

Souness dropped Andy Cole and started with Paul Gallagher and Jon Stead in attack but it was his supine midfield and blundering defence where the problems started. Craig Short made a glorious tackle on Gerrard on three minutes when the Liverpool captain bustled into the box, but moments later Blackburn had two chances to stop a sweeping move that led to Owen's first goal.

Jamie Carragher's ball across his own half trickled through to Kewell who seemed to hit his pass at Heskey too hard. But the striker showed a surprising lightness of touch to kill the ball and poke it through to Owen coming up fast on the left. He appeared to slip as he snatched at the ball and goalkeeper Brad Friedel should have done rather better keeping it out, but then Owen has hardly been greedy with his luck this season.

The second, on 22 minutes, was Andy Todd's witless deflection into his own goal after Diouf's cross from the right but the third proved Owen's signature on the game, a flourish that emphasised the gulf in class between him and the men trying to stop him. Heskey fed Diouf who touched the ball inside to Owen. He barely had to break his stride before belting a rising volley past Friedel.

Owen was removed on 76 minutes with Milan Baros reinvigorating Liverpool's attack and making their fourth goal just minutes after coming on. Kewell found the Czech international who weaved into the box and, with the goal beckoning, squared for Heskey to crack home his tenth goal of the season.

Liverpool blasted away at the Blackburn goal as Souness's team collapsed towards the end. John Arne Riise, Danny Murphy and Baros should all have scored as the Kop was peppered with loose shots.

Match details

Liverpool: Dudek, Carragher, Biscan, Hyypia, Riise, Diouf (Murphy 71), Hamann, Gerrard, Kewell, Heskey (Sinama Pongolle 85), Owen (Baros 76).
Subs Not Used: Henchoz, Luzi Bernardi.
Goals: Owen 7, Todd 22 og, Owen 24, Heskey 79.

Blackburn: Friedel, Babbel, Short (Johansson 45), Todd, Gray, Emerton, Tugay, Flitcroft (Reid 45), Andresen, Gallagher (Cole 61), Stead.
Subs Not Used: Enckelman, Yorke.
Booked: Flitcroft.
Att: 41,559
Ref: J Winter (Cleveland). 

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