Football: Fowler to fore for Spanish foray

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IT IS NEVER an exact science foreseeing what Anfield's great unpredictables will do but the weekend compounded the difficulty. On Saturday morning the issue seemed simple: Celta Vigo were top of the Spanish League, Liverpool were at the bottom of a trough and their Uefa Cup third round, first leg tonight seemed a foregone conclusion. Not any more.

Liverpool, who had lost three home games and a joint manager in eight days, confounded expectation by defeating the Premiership leaders, Aston Villa, while Vigo, who Johan Cruyff had said "are playing the best football in the league", lost the plot completely at struggling Alaves. The picture has muddied, to say the least.

Not that Gerard Houllier was drawing any conclusions from either result as he viewed his first European match solely in charge of Liverpool in the Atlantic port which lands more fish than anywhere else in Europe. "It was one step on a big flight of stairs," he said of the Villa match. "The game did not hide our problems; we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. The only thing we got out of it was confidence and a way out of the spell we are in." As for Vigo, he added with a smile: "At least it proves they can lose."

The Spaniards' 2-0 defeat on Saturday night was their first in the league, and cost them their top position to Mallorca. But just as a meeting with Aston Villa was a watershed for Liverpool, so it was for Vigo, whose 3- 1 win in Birmingham in the previous round made everyone take notice of a club who hitherto had been noted only for a couple of appearances in the Spanish Cup final.

That has guarded against Liverpool complacency. "They're a very good side," Houllier said. "They are a passing team who are very well balanced, very skilful and very flamboyant. They attack as a unit and defend as a unit. I spoke to John Gregory and he said that even though his side won 1-0 in Spain, they spent most of the match around the Villa penalty area."

Houllier singled out the Russian Alexander Mostovoi and Brazil's Mazinho as Vigo's best players, both of them midfielders. Which is unfortunate because Liverpool are depleted in that area, with Paul Ince and Steve McManaman serving their punishments after being sent off against Valencia in the last round. Steve Harkness's injury on Saturday has also diminished Liverpool's options and although Houllier yesterday expressed a preference for a back four rather than the five he employed against Villa, it is unlikely he will desert a winning formula, particularly without Ince to act as security blanket in front of the back line.

Roy Evans' preference in away European ties was to smother the midfield and play only one striker, but Houllier will adopt a bolder policy. "I'm not very keen on playing only one man up front," he said, "If he is neutralised the ball keeps coming back at you. Play two and the opposition have to keep three at the back. The more I see matches where teams use one striker, the more I'm convinced it's wrong."

It helps, of course, if your two strikers are Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, who belied the theory that they find it difficult to gell on Saturday when the latter scored a hat-trick. After an England cap in midweek, the reports of Fowler's decline seem exaggerated.

Houllier singled Fowler out for praise yesterday, describing his performance as a reference point for the rest of the season. "He knows he can play like that," the manager said. "He has found his touch again, dropped back when necessary, was good in the air and shielded the ball well.

"The way Robbie and Michael played against Villa was typical of what we are working towards. That kind of performance we have to repeat not once but 15 times. It's not up to one player who has to do it but everyone in the team."

There was good news for Liverpool, meanwhile, about Harkness, whose injury after a late tackle by Stan Collymore is less serious than was feared. He has ligament damage but no bones were broken and he should be fit within two weeks. "It's far better than we expected," Houllier said. "I thought it could have been a broken leg when I saw the pictures on the television. The tackle was harsher than I first thought, very bad. It should have been a red-card offence."