Football: Owen has the Midas touch

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Wednesday 3

Carbone 7, Di Canio 63, Hinchcliffe 69

Liverpool 3

Owen 27, 73, 78

Attendance: 35,405

MICHAEL OWEN left the field to an ovation after writing another thrilling chapter to the breathless story of his season but the most telling consequence of this splendid match is that Liverpool have conceded more ground to Manchester United on a day when they might have moved to within two points of the Premiership leaders.

Indeed, but for a masterclass in finishing by the extraordinary 18-year- old the Anfield side would have been beaten again, as they had been by Southampton last weekend, just at the moment of opportunity.

With 18 minutes left, Wednesday held a 3-1 advantage, having seized an apparently unassailable position through goals by Paolo di Canio and the ex-Evertonian Andy Hinchcliffe.

But Owen, whose first strike after 27 minutes had nullified Benito Carbone's opportunist opener, would not be subdued, much as Des Walker and Jon Newsome tried to cover his bursts of pace, which Steve McManaman and Paul Ince knew precisely how to exploit.

Liverpool, by necessity, had gone for broke in trying to overturn their deficit, replacing two defenders with two attackers as Karl-Heinz Riedle and Patrik Berger joined a ferocious assault on Wednesday's goal. But for all that these two sidelined internationals had something to prove, neither could push the teenager out of the spotlight.

After the grafting Robbie Fowler had rattled the foot of Kevin Pressman's right-hand post, in came Owen to drill home the rebound with marvellous precision and give his side hope. Five minutes later, sent clear by Ince's pass, he deftly steered the ball wide of the advancing Wednesday goalkeeper to claim a record as the youngest player to score a Premiership hat-trick. Had Pressman been a yard further off his line when Owen tried to chip him in the last minute, a good story might have been made an even better one.

"I think he upstaged what he did on Wednesday night," his manager, Roy Evans, said afterwards. "You can see what he is capable of today. He got three and might have had a couple more or laid on a couple more. It was a fantastic performance."

"The extraordinary thing is that he shows no sign of tiring either physically or mentally. This was his 40th match of the season and we had not planned for him to have so many games but it would take a brave man to leave him out now," he added.

Evans was as pleased with the determination behind his side's fightback as with Owen's performance but again he was let down by defending that fell short of the standards of past Liverpool teams. Missing Phil Babb, they combined Bjorn Tore Kvarme with Dominic Matteo in a central pairing that never looked secure and needed David James to have a good day behind them.

James, however, could be faulted for Wednesday's first goal, when he was caught off his line, and the third, when he dropped Mark Pembridge's shot at the feet of Hinchcliffe. And Di Canio's header in between beat him from a long way out.

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