Football: Anfield back in James' safe hands

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The Independent Online
DAVID JAMES has resurrected his faltering career at the very moment that Liverpool's European ambitions are fading. The much-maligned former England goalkeeper was the inspiration behind the Anfield club's survival in the Uefa Cup second round, first leg match at home to Valencia on Tuesday night.

Had it not been for the excellent James, the 0-0 draw that Liverpool clawed their way to would have been a heavy reverse. Even now they can expect a intimidating night in the Estadio Mestalla in a fortnight.

It is four games now since James reclaimed the goalkeeping jersey he lost to Brad Friedel after the Merseyside derby last season in February. James has conceded just one goal, keeping three clean sheets, and showing a growing confidence and air of authority that has delighted the Liverpool joint management team.

James has been heavily criticised for being unsure in the air, but at Everton on Saturday against the intimidating Duncan Ferguson and an aerial bombardment, the Liverpool keeper could not be faulted.

Against Valencia's fleet-footed, clever forwards - including Argentina's Claudio Lopez - James did not put a foot or hand wrong. The joint manager, Roy Evans, said: "James was excellent, he made some great saves and kept us in it. He looked very confident and we just hope he can maintain that confidence."

With all the post-match discussion about the decision to rest Michael Owen after playing more than 80 games for club and country in under two years, James's sterling performance went largely unheralded.

His Liverpool colleagues, however, have witnessed first hand James' quiet return to form, a progress acknowledged by the club captain, Paul Ince. He said: "David has taken a lot of criticism in the past but this season he has come back, trained hard and become stronger. And that's now showing in games.

"If he plays to his potential then he is going to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world and will have the chance to play for England again."

Liverpool will now hope that the passing ability of Jamie Redknapp, absent with a groin strain, will be available for the second leg in Spain. Also, Owen is more than likely to be among the starting XI that evening.

The decision to rest him, whenever it came, was always going to be awkward for Evans and Gerard Houllier. If Liverpool had struggled without Owen then criticism was certain to follow. Evans, however, is taking a longer- term view and described Owen as a "priceless asset we have to protect". He warned: "He can't carry the world on his shoulders for us and England."

Now they have finally taken the decision to withdraw him after a period of activity that reaches back to the beginning of last season, it will be easier to rest the 18-year-old in the future. Owen may well play against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, but could be rested again in the Worthington Cup tie with Fulham next Tuesday.

Evans said: "We have to be aware of his tiredness, and we need players in the busy coming weeks to retain their freshness."

After scoring two goals in his last 12 club and international games, Owen has looked jaded. A decision to ease back on his appearances, whenever it came, would be applauded by all who want to see the Chester prodigy's talent blossom into the next decade - none more so than those at Lancaster Gate.