Football: Owen aids the recovery

Liverpool 2 Sheffield Wednesday 0 Berger 19, Owen 34 Half-time: 2-0 Attendance: 40,003
COMPLETE recovery may take quite a while, but it's not unreasonable to assume that Liverpool's convalescence has begun. Drawing on Anfield's restorative powers and surviving a queasy first quarter-hour, Gerard Houllier's much derided side rediscovered some missing vitality yesterday and recorded their first win of December.

Having lost each of the last three games, the club reacted to apparent ill-health by surrounding themselves with supportive friends and family, creating an ideal ambience for recuperation. The supporters - rarely in decades gone by offered the chance to be anything more than "fair weather" - sang long before they were winning. The players knew they were still loved and reacted accordingly.

Even so, like any groggy patient, Liverpool were slow risers. Benito Carbone, in twinkle-toes mode, and Danny Sonner, with a rising volley, might have given them nightmares before they were brought to full cold- light-of-day consciousness by Andy Hinchcliffe's zippy free-kick.

Once awake though, Liverpool produced 20 minutes of football held up by Houllier as an example of how he wants his team to play. During that spell, the game was won.

With a suddenness that seemed to take their opponents aback, Liverpool came upliftingly to life. Their midfield metamorphosis was led by Jamie Redknapp - a man who has risen above much of the recent criticism. His passing, combined with Paul Ince's constructively harnessed desire, changed the mood and the goals followed.

First, Robbie Fowler, controlling Stig Inge Bjornebye's left wing corner, teed-up Patrik Berger. Then, just beyond the half-hour Bjornebye scampered on to Jamie Carragher's pass and cut inside before locating Michael Owen in prime predatory position to dispatch his 13th goal of the season.

Owen's lifting of the pace was the constant catalyst for the Kop's lifting of the noise. He - the nippy hurrier on to so many hopeful midfield passes - has represented hope through recent grim times. So, when he was withdrawn late in the second half, the crowd's valedictory applause was heartfelt.

In one week, Owen has missed a penalty, collected the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year award and turned 19. His fans will be relieved to hear that age has not withered him.

Liverpool's visible improvement brought a measured response from Houllier, who had bemoaned his team's unlucky empty-handedness at Wimbledon last week. "We're not perfect - we know that," he said. "We've got to improve in several areas. But these points will give us confidence."

Suddenly, Houllier's problems seem relatively small alongside those of Wednesday's Danny Wilson. Last season Anfield offered his Barnsley team probably the most joyous away day of their brief but beautiful Premiership life. This time, Wilson, in defeat, was met by questions about his errant Italian Paolo Di Canio, still exiled in Rome.

Had he heard any more from Paolo? "More?" replied Wilson, "I haven't heard anything from him."

Di Canio's return from long- term suspension was scheduled, not inappropriately, for Boxing Day. But he has not trained since going home to Italy and the likelihood is that his grand re-entry will be considerably delayed yet.

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