Football: Owen signed and sealed

Parlour's blunder denies Arsenal the points as the Anfield boy wonder comes under close attention
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The Independent Online
Liverpool 0

Arsenal 0

Attendance: 44,429

ARSENAL CAME to Anfield last May when the title was already in the bank. Two games into the new season and Liverpool can be assured that not many more accomplished sides will cross their path. Even so, they will regard a draw, goalless but never dull, as two points lost rather than one gained, however much the balance of play favoured an Arsenal victory. Michael Owen's homecoming came within inches of exultant fulfilment in the second half. Mostly, he gained a taste of what fame can bring, not just in the news of his new five-year contract, but in the physical attentions of Martin Keown and Steve Bould.

Arsenal have the understanding and instinctive teamwork patented at Anfield. This early in the season, Liverpool are still searching for the right blend; Arsenal are stirring in the sugar. Both their Dutchmen, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, were peripheral figures, but in Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, Arsenal had the game's most influential figures. And Ray Parlour was not far distant. Steve McManaman remains the fulcrum for Liverpool and his future at the club is still unsettled. Too often, his scampering runs faltered for lack of options. Once, his final shot bobbled predictably wide. Otherwise, the old offside trap was well oiled.

The best chances fell to the visitors, Parlour wasting a golden opportunity in the first half, Overmars foiled by Brad Friedel's athleticism and bravery midway through the second. Indeed, but for a series of close-range saves by the American, Liverpool could be nursing a morale-sapping home reverse. Bergkamp, too, scuffed his shot from 15 yards when the winner beckoned in the closing minutes. Not that Liverpool were without their own sting, but Owen was too often left without support or a decent supply. Not even the arrival of Nelson Vivas, a reminder of a certain night in St Etienne, could inspire the young pretender to those heights.

Tony Adams's absence with food poisoning cost Arsenal a prime source of organisation against Owen's blindside forays. Owen's every run was accorded full rapture by the Kop, but only in the second half did he begin to test the nerve of Keown and the instant judgement of the referee, David Elleray, who had an excellent game.

Though deprived of a challenge to relish between the old stager and the young upstart, there was no shortage of wheels within wheels, not least the touchline rendezvous of Gerard Houllier and Arsene Wenger. Two gongs were awarded before the first bell: the Carling Young Player of the Year to Owen and the Fair-play Trophy. Both would be swapped for the more significant silverware won by Arsenal last season. The more important news was the new contract signed by Owen, which will, in theory, keep him at Anfield until 2003 when the boy will be a princely 23.

Post-Christmas this would be the matching of relative title credentials. On a summer's afternoon in mid-August, even the Sky cameras had left the rich pickings to the BBC, back to the scene of their first Match Of The Day highlights 34 years ago to the day. Then, as now, the opponents were Arsenal. Liverpool's 3-2 victory was brought to the nation in flickering black and white. The one consolation for Liverpool last season was a handsome double over the champions; 1-0 at Highbury and a thumping 4-0 at home when the shouting was over and Arsenal fielded a sub-strength side. No such luxury yesterday.

The ovation accorded Arsenal by the home supporters, a rarity these days, showed that for all the changes the Kop still recognises a champion team when they see one. With the addition of Steve Staunton and Vegard Heggem Liverpool have concentrated on strengthening the defence, happy that Owen will see to the business end. Arsenal have quickly slotted into the familiar rhythms of last season, except that Petit not Vieira seems to have assumed the duties of breaking from the defensive midfield axis. Apart from sporadic runs by McManaman, the odd charge forward by Paul Ince, the midfield was the territory of the two Frenchmen and Parlour, who, with Bergkamp, exploited the fallibility of Berger and, surprisingly, Staunton on the Liverpool left.

Parlour should, indeed, have put Arsenal ahead 10 minutes before half- time. The chance will flit through his head all season. A gaping goal, ball at his feet eight yards out after Friedel had brilliantly palmed away Nicolas Anelka's header. Parlour blasted his left foot shot over and buried his head in his hands. A goal then would have neatly rounded off a period of domination, broken only by flickering bursts from Owen and a header by Karlheinz Riedle which flashed past David Seaman's post. Liverpool pressed; Arsenal showed more composure. Come back in May.

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