Football: Owen takes advantage of Magpies' fallibility

Newcastle United 2 Liverpool 2
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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Liverpool visited St James' Park, Ruud Gullit was introduced to the Toon Army as their new team-leader and Michael Owen shot a first-half hat-trick past a home guard as sprightly as Corporal Jones, Captain Mainwairing and company. The dreadlocked Dutchman may be long gone now but the dreadful defending remains.

The two goals Owen scored yesterday were both served on a silver platter, courtesy of Alessandro Pistone in the first half and Nikos Dabizas in the second. It was just as well for Liverpool, because otherwise their championship challenge would have suffered a jolt by the banks of the Tyne.

It was a pity for Newcastle, though, because - those two aberrations apart - they showed just how much progress they have made since Bobby Robson started his rebuilding job from Ruud's rubble. As it was, they had to draw upon their new-found strength to salvage a point, Duncan Ferguson heading the equaliser after Owen's second goal. It was the least that Newcastle deserved and, no doubt, a particularly sweet moment for the towering centre-forward, who still sports an Everton tattoo on his left forearm.

This time last year Ferguson was presented with a prison shirt by his team-mates, who chose Mein Kampf as a Christmas gift for Dietmar Hamann. The German midfielder, jeered on to the pitch by the Toon Army yesterday, looked in the mood to have the last laugh as he helped Liverpool dictate the early play but he was less than amused when Newcastle scored from their first attack.

The curling right-foot free-kick Nolberto Solano dispatched from wide on the left probably would have crept inside the far post without assistance but Alan Shearer made sure with a glancing header, the England captain's first Premiership goal from open play for two months.

Newcastle fleetingly threatened to take control but Liverpool gradually regained their poise, Hamann forging the openings from which Titi Camara and Patrik Berger provided Steve Harper with his first tests. It was dire defending by a Newcastle player, though, that presented Liverpool with an equaliser in the 31st minute.

Pistone was probably less enamoured than Hamann or Ferguson with the festive gift he received in the St James' Park dressing-room last year, the sheep's heart having been chosen as a sign of his commitment. The Italian left-back was certainly guilty of half-heartedness as he back- pedalled to the edge of the six-yard box, affording Owen the opportunity to sweep a right-foot shot past the advancing Harper and inside the far post.

Whoever issued the warning to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts might have had Dabizas in mind. Eight minutes into the second half, he turned on his heels on the half-way line and tapped the ball back in the general direction of his own goal. The pass travelled all of 15 yards before the grateful Owen took possession, advanced to the area of the Newcastle penalty area and beat Harper with another curling, low shot.

The Newcastle of old would have folded. But 13 minutes later Barton crossed from the right and Ferguson equalised with a diving header. Instead of inflicting the first home defeat of Robson's reign, Liverpool were left clinging on for a point.

Goals: Shearer (11) 1-0; Owen (31) 1-1; Owen (53) 1-2; Ferguson (66) 2-2.

Newcastle United (4-3-1-2): Harper; Barton, Dabizas, Hughes, Pistone; Solano (Gallacher, 73), Lee, Speed; Dyer (Glass, 53); Shearer, Ferguson (Ketsbaia, 90). Substitutes not used: Given (gk), Marcelino.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Song, Hyypia, Carragher, Matteo; Murphy (Fowler, 83), Gerrard, Hamann, Berger; Owen, Camara (Heggem, 69). Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Staunton, Traore.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Bookings: None.

Man of the match: Lee.

Attendance: 36,445.