BY MATT LAWTON
IT is not a position he relishes, but Michael Owen is proving rather good at stepping off the bench and scoring crucial goals this season.
The scorer of England's late equaliser against France in Paris in September, the Liverpool striker, 21 today, settled this Worthington Cup quarter-final with a dramatic 105th-minute goal at Anfield last night.
Add to that the one he scored within 10 seconds of joining the action away to Slovan Liberec in October, and one can see why Gerard Houllier must consider himself rather fortunate to have strikers of the quality of the three he has in his Liverpool squad.
Vladimir Smicer confirmed their place in a semi-final against either Crystal Palace or Sunderland when he converted Nick Barmby's cross with a first-time shot in the 115th minute. Barmby made it 3-0 in the last minute.
For the 104 minutes leading up to Owen's goal, it had seemed Houllier was facing arguably the most humiliating defeat of his tenure as Liverpool manager.
Fulham had hardly succeeded in gaining the upper hand - they deserved praise only for their industry - but the longer Liverpool failed to score, the more likely it appeared Jean Tigana's First Division leaders would record a memorable win.
It was courtesy of Smicer's cross that Owen got his goal. His first attempt, a header, was blocked on the line by Andy Melville but with his second he made no mistake.
Having made such a hash of his team selection for the Premiership encounter with Ipswich last Sunday, Houllier took the more sensible, and to the fans more acceptable, option.
Emile Heskey, scorer of 12 goals in 11 starts, was back, with Robbie Fowler his partner in attack. Owen was probably being rested in readiness for the trip to Old Trafford on Sunday, where Manchester United defenders have taken something of a disliking to the England forward's pace.
It was the Premiership hosts who threatened first against their First Division visitors, Heskey sending a header looping over the Fulham crossbar after meeting a Vladimir Smicer cross. Igor Biscan, the Croatian international midfielder making his full debut following a £5.5 million from Dynamo Zagreb, then saw his shot deflected for a corner.
But a side intent on showing they will be ready for the Premiership if, as expected, they secure promotion, soon responded, Steve Finnan troubling Sander Westerveld with a stinging strike before a weakly struck back pass by Sami Hyypia presented Lee Clark with an opportunity. The Fulham midfielder challenged at Westerveld's feet but, fortunately for Hyypia, the ball spun wide.
Fulham were certainly not displaying an inferiority complex, even if it was Liverpool who once again applied the greater pressure having survived their brief scare.
Markus Babbel forced a fine save from Maik Taylor when he shot from the corner of the penalty area, the Fulham goalkeeper doing better still to block a Heskey volley.
Fowler, scorer of 25 goals in his 29 League Cup appearances, then attempted to increase his prolific tally with a chip that, just like Heskey's earlier header, landed on the roof of the Fulham net.
While the conditions were not of the kind to threaten an abandonment, the heavy rain that began to fall midway through the first half did make the flowing football Liverpool like to play more difficult.
Players had trouble remaining on their feet, as Heskey discovered to his frustration when trying to shoot in the 36th minute. He ended up on his backside while the ball nestled somewhere deep in the Kop. Liverpool nevertheless persisted with their usual style of fluid passing and movement, Fulham's defenders preferring instead the long-ball approach as the tie moved towards the interval. Given the gradual destruction of the playing surface, both had their merits.
The longer the game continued, the less likely it seemed someone would actually manage to score. Even when faced with only Taylor to beat, Heskey was unable to finish a move Danny Murphy had so beautifully started with a wonderful pass shortly before the break.
As the game moved past the hour mark, Fulham became the far likelier to score, Louis Saha going close with a powerful drive that was deflected wide by Hyypia before Bjarne Goldbaek's fierce strike forced a terrific save from Westerveld.
Saha had another chance minutes later, only to be denied by Stephane Henchoz's desperate lunging block.
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