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Football: Lightning Owen `is no diver'

MICHAEL OWEN has been defended against accusations of diving by the Port Vale centre-back he tormented in Liverpool's FA Cup third round victory.

Liverpool's teen sensation was booed by Vale fans who claimed he made a meal of a penalty area challenge during the 3-0 win, but Vale's Paul Beesley insists it was only the England player's phenomenal speed which made it look like a dive. The 33-year-old Port Vale defender came up against Owen for the first time in his career, and the Liverpool-born Beesley hopes it does not happen again. He said: "If I had to face him every week, I'd be grey. He doesn't dive, he's just so damned quick it looks that way."

Owen won the penalty, scored it himself, and created the third for Robbie Fowler in a dazzling display of lightning-fast football.

Beesley, who boasts a solid career during which he has played for Wigan, Leeds, Manchester City, Sheffield United and Leyton Orient, said he had encountered no one like Owen. "Up until Sunday, I'd managed to miss playing against him," he said. "I will probably be old and grey when the next chance comes around, and it will be too early."

Owen's team-mate, Patrik Berger, has revealed that Liverpool's re-discovered form could be down to their manager Gerard Houllier's tough new regime. The Czech international midfielder says that since Roy Evans departed the new team of Houllier and the old Anfield stalwart Phil Thompson have imposed a stringent code of discipline.

Liverpool players, who once gained a reputation as the game's Spice Boys, have been banned from using mobile phones at the training ground, have had a new diet imposed on them and have to stay in a hotel the night before home matches. Berger, who almost left Liverpool before Houllier resurrected his Anfield career, said: "There have been a lot of small disciplinary changes. I don't know how the other players feel, but they're professional footballers. They have to do what they are told. Some players may not like it, but that's tough."

Berger, who played for Borussia Dortmund before moving to Anfield, admits the new approach is the reason for improved results. He added: "The discipline in Dortmund was far stricter than in this country. That's starting to happen now because the continental trainers are tightening up on discipline. There's a different mentality and upbringing over here. It's not what I was used to in Germany and the Czech Republic, it's far easier."

Liverpool have jumped from 12th in the FA Carling Premiership to seventh with consecutive Premiership victories over Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough and Newcastle, and carried their rich vein of form into the new year with Sunday's FA Cup third round win 3-0 at Port Vale.

The Aston Villa manager, John Gregory, yesterday admitted his side were missing Dwight Yorke, the striker they sold to Manchester United, but backed Paul Merson to fill the void as the Premiership title race gathers pace.

Merson is back in training at the club's Bodymoor Heath training complex after having an injection to ease the back problem he has been suffering for the past three months. Gregory is hoping to play in reserve matches over the next nine days to confirm his fitness for the televised match against Everton on 18 January.

Gregory said: "We are still missing Dwight Yorke at times. There have been quite a few occasions with us this season which would have been ideal for Dwight. There were times last year when Dwight won us matches away from home when we were under the cosh, times when he kept the ball and created situations at the other end of the pitch.

"Paul Merson is very similar. He can do the same sort of thing. He has got a bit more guile than some - and we are going to need him. You never know with back problems what can happen. They are so delicate and any one of us can be struck down by a back problem at any time. But he seems okay."