Football: Owen carries burden of expectation

Sheffield Wednesday 3 Liverpool 3
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The Independent Online
MORE headlines for Michael Owen, but more question marks against Liverpool, whose pursuit of Manchester United in the Premiership is again faltering. An eight-match unbeaten run preceded the home defeat to Southampton nine days ago, giving rise to renewed belief that Anfield could provide a genuine title challenge. Now the doubts are back.

Happily for them, Owen was superb, his two goals in the last 18 minutes enabling him to claim another record as the youngest scorer of a Premiership hat-trick - he already has one in the Coca-Cola Cup - on an afternoon when he might have scored five or six but for some excellent saves by Kevin Pressman.

"It was a fantastic performance," Roy Evans said. The Liverpool manager exhausted his supply of superlatives some time ago but tried his best to add a few more. What makes the deepest impression is that Owen, an 18-year-old playing his 40th competitive match of the season, shows no sign of fatigue.

"It was not in the plan for him to play so many games," Evans said. What worries him most is burn-out. He knows Owen ought to have a break, so that he stays sharp. But after 18 goals this season the Liverpool public expects; and now England also expects.

"An England debut and a hat-trick in the same week - he's buzzing. It would take a brave man to leave him out and I don't think I'm that brave," Evans said.

Not that he can afford to be brave, given that Owen appears to be the only player on whom he can rely. Robbie Fowler, who at least answered the questions over his work rate, is still without a Premiership goal since Boxing Day and, after four goals in 25 appearances, Karlheinz Riedle hardly offers a compelling alternative.

Indeed, this was a one-man rescue act. Wednesday led 3-1 with 18 minutes left and for all that Liverpool rallied with spirit, Paul Ince and Steve McManaman driving them forward, one doubts they would have salvaged a draw had it not been for Owen.

Ince's volley drew the save of the day from Pressman; Fowler hit a post, as did Patrik Berger, who came off the bench with Riedle in Evans' last throw of the dice. But when chances fell to Owen, they were taken with a coolness and precision that is extraordinary in one so young.

Having beaten Pressman in a one-on-one to nullify Benito Carbone's early strike, Owen did so again to equalise for the second time. In between, he dispatched a tightly-angled rebound with power and accuracy after Fowler's shot had come back off the woodwork. In the last minute, had Pressman strayed a little further from his line, a dipping curler might have brought him a fourth and an unlikely Liverpool win.

But such an outcome would have papered over cracks of which Evans is only too aware. Much as they controlled midfield, Liverpool were sloppy in defence, allowing a Wednesday side that often squandered possession to profit three times.

Behind them, David James hardly inspired confidence. Having been caught out of position by Carbone, he was beaten by a header from Paolo di Canio and then dropped Mark Pembridge's shot at Andy Hinchcliffe's feet. At least Owen gets things right.

Goals: Carbone (7) 1-0; Owen (27) 1-1; Di Canio (63) 2-1; Hinchcliffe (69) 3-1; Owen (73) 3-2; Owen (78) 3-3.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Nolan, Newsome, Walker, Hinchcliffe; Rudi, Hyde (Magilton, 45), Atherton, Pembridge (Whittingham, 81); Carbone, Di Canio. Substitutes not used: Mayrleb, Oakes, Clarke (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Jones (Riedle, 71), Kvarme (Berger, 71), Matteo, Harkness; McManaman, Carragher, Ince, Leonhardsen; Fowler, Owen. Substitutes not used: Bjornebye, Murphy, Friedel (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Sheffield Wednesday Hyde, Rudi; Liverpool Harkness.

Attendance: 35,405.

Man of the match: Owen.