Football: Fowler terrorises the old guard

Liverpool 2 Fowler 8, Berger 76 Arsenal 0 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 44,886
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WHO NEEDS Michael Owen? England might, but not Liverpool, on this imperious showing. Owen had spent much of his afternoon patrolling the touchline, his every twitch greeted with raptures by the Kop, but his return to Premiership action, three minutes from time, merely added the final touch of gilt to a golden afternoon for Liverpool and their manager, Gerard Houllier.

"It was a symbolic boost," Houllier said of Owen's belated appearance. "For him, for the team and the fans." The far bigger boost came from Liverpool's wholehearted commitment to the cause against a side who have put a BSI kitemark on such rugged virtues in recent seasons. A cracker of a goal by Robbie Fowler inside the first 10 minutes and a lucky deflection off a Patrik Berger free-kick did not fully reflect the prevailing balance of power. Fowler himself could have capped a memorable week - he became a father for the first time two days ago - with a hat-trick against the reunited Arsenal rearguard, but the scoreline could have been even tighter had Sander Westerveld not saved a penalty from Davor Suker in the dying seconds of the match.

It was only the second time the Dutchman had been called into action, an eloquent testimony to the lack of penetration in the Arsenal attack. Thierry Henry, in particular, looked like a forlorn child in a playground full of bullies. It is not often that Arsenal get muscled out of a game, least of all by a team who, until the revolving door began to turn, had a reputation for being a soft touch.

Of the two cultured Frenchmen in the dug-out, Arsene Wenger, for once, wore the biggest frown. But his criticism of a lacklustre display was aimed at the fixtures computer more than his team. "I don't think it is the same for Arsenal and Manchester United," Wenger said in reference to his side's third game in seven days. "You could see the difference in sharpness after 10 minutes."

Given that Liverpool were in a similar position, the argument held as much water as a thimble. But it is a symptom of Arsenal's stuttering start to the campaign that their manager is, for once, floundering for excuses. Plus ca change, as he might say. 'Twas ever thus. Few are better than Arsenal in a war of attrition.

Of more immediate concern for Wenger will be the lack of balance in a side deprived of a focal point and its motordrive in the absence of Nwankwo Kanu and Emmanuel Petit. Without Kanu, Arsenal are too lightweight; without Petit to cover him, Patrick Vieira becomes half the player, lacking the conviction to make those devastating forward breaks. Wenger brought Ray Parlour into central midfield for the second half, but by then Liverpool's blood was up.

Houllier comprehensively won the battle of tactiques by playing Titi Camara in a withdrawn role on the left and leaving the indefatigable Fowler to combat Adams and Martin Keown on his own. It was a no-contest. Fowler was simply electric, dropping off the Arsenal centre-backs into the no- man's land and constantly testing Adams on the ground. The Arsenal captain, who had only just recovered from a double hernia, seemed destined to suffer another in his efforts to track Fowler's twists and turns. Houllier's smile was only marginally broader than that of Kevin Keegan, the England manager.

Within nine minutes Fowler succeeded in doing what neither side had managed in their two Premiership games last season. Some neat interplay between Berger and Jamie Redknapp in midfield left Fowler free 10 yards from the Arsenal penalty area. A couple of strides to steady himself and a thundering left-foot shot ricocheted off the underside of Alex Manninger's bar to give Liverpool the ideal stomach-settler.

Had not Adams hurled himself into the path of another drive and then gone full length to block again, bringing howls of protest from the Kop, who sensed a hand ball, Fowler would have had a hat-trick inside 45 minutes.

Long before Berger's free-kick took a terrible deflection to wrongfoot Manninger, Liverpool should have had the match under lock and key. Twice, the Austrian produced flying saves, from Berger and Redknapp, but he was stranded when Fowler clipped a snap left-foot shot on to the foot of his right-hand post.

The match, you felt, might have a nasty sting in its tail for Liverpool until Berger put the matter beyond doubt 15 minutes from time.

"We have beaten a team better than us and a club stronger than us," Houllier said. "That was the nature of the performance." As significant to restful nights was the solidity of his defence. "A clean sheet," he added, "I was dreaming of that in the past."

Wenger too praised Liverpool's discipline, commitment and sharpness, qualities not so conspicuous in the recent 1-0 defeat by Watford, which brought criticism ranging from the mild to the xenophobic.

"I was not a villain then and I am not a hero now," Houllier added. But he knows a hero when he sees one. Having kept Anfield waiting until tea- time, Houllier finally beckoned to the little figure in the No 10 shirt. Off came the impressive Camara, on came Owen for the first time since April. Cue delirium.

But the more significant reflection of Liverpool's future is that they have now disposed of Leeds and Arsenal inside six days. The visit of the champions, Manchester United, to Anfield in a fortnight is now not quite the mismatch it seemed this time last week.