Football: Fowler eclipsed by Owen as Liverpool's force for the future

Liverpool 1 Coventry City 0
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The jeers and whistles that cascaded down from the Kop must have hit Robbie Fowler like poisoned darts. At the end he manfully attempted to share the joy of victory, but inside he was hurting and bewildered.

A few years ago he was the gem of Anfield, and each season since has polished him closer to perfection: that priceless stone, a natural goalscorer, adding to his game awareness, appreciation, intelligence.

But now, just when he should be approaching his most irresistible and staking his claim for a place in England's World Cup squad, Liverpool appear to have made an even more precious discovery, and the effect on Fowler is palpably devastating.

Michael Owen has just turned 18, and with every lightning sprint, fiendish turn, tenacious challenge and clinical execution, he seems to undermine the confidence and stature of his senior partner.

Liverpool's manager, Roy Evans, has given public expression to his anxiety to reinforce his defence. In attack he had an apparently enviable choice of two from Fowler, Karlheinz Riedle and Owen. For Riedle, however, the move to the Premiership may have come too late. Liverpool's future as an offensive force is in the hands of Fowler and Owen. At the moment, Owen alone is bearing up to the responsibility.

Misfortune and loss of form are occupational hazards, especially for strikers, and Liverpool supporters are as understanding as any. But when they perceive a lack of endeavouring commitment, their wrath is uncontainable. Fowler eventually gave them cause for such a perception, and the sense of betrayal was doubtless mutual.

Evans refused to join the chorus of criticism, saying of Fowler: "He had a quieter game. I've seen him far better and scoring goals, but some days it happens like that, and not all the rest of the team were at their best."

But then the rest of the team do not have to endure direct comparison with Owen, a test of character as much as ability that could prove a defining period in Fowler's career. His immediate task is to come to terms with the fledgling phenomenon.

Evans will presumably have more to say to Fowler in private. The success or otherwise of that counselling will significantly influence Liverpool's prospects of qualifying for European competition next season and the player's chances of making Glenn Hoddle's squad for France.

What delicious irony for Owen that he should have produced another exhilarating performance - as well as the only goal of the game - in the wake of the England coach's recent clumsily delivered reservations about the youngster.

Coventry may well have won the match with Owen in their ranks rather than making a monkey of Dion Dublin. Steve McManaman troubled them, but Owen made the crucial difference.

The Coventry manager, Gordon Strachan, is conscious that his side require more quality and penetration if they are to spare themselves the annual cliff-hanger. To that end he has added to his squad the Dutchman, George Boateng, and is intent on continuing his recruitment drive.

"There was a time when you could cut corners and get away with it in this league, but not any more," Strachan said. "You need quality, and that's what we are trying to get in."

Strachan felt his team unnecessarily handed the early initiative by trying to play Liverpool at their own game without the essential quality, and duly conceded that decisive goal. For all Coventry's determination to play in Liverpool's territory thereafter, they rarely suggested they had the potency to salvage a point.

Goal: 1-0 Owen (14).

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; McAteer, Kvarme, Matteo, Harkness; McManaman, Carragher, Redknapp, Leonardsen; Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Babb, Riedle, Berger, Bjornebye, Nielsen (gk).

Coventry City (4-4-2) Hedman; Nilsson, Shaw, Dublin, Hall; Telfer, Soltvedt (Gavin Strachan 82), Boateng, Whelan; Huckerby, Haworth (Ducros 84). Substitutes not used: Ogrizovic (gk) O'Neill, Prenderville.

Referee: P Alcock (Redhill).

Bookings: Liverpool: Carragher, Kvarme. Coventry: Telfer, Boateng.

Man of the Match: Owen.

Attendance: 39,707.