Football: Owen the winner as title rivals draw a blank

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The Independent Online
Liverpool 0 Blackburn Rovers 0

Back on Boxing Day, when Alex Ferguson went through the motions of warning that no-one ever won the title in December, few of those championing Liverpool or Blackburn could have argued too strongly had the Manchester United manager added: "But the end of January could be a different matter."

United had just recorded a sixth successive Premiership victory. With the Champions' League no longer a distraction and a list of less than daunting forthcoming fixtures, a new twist to an old adage suggested itself: when the going gets less tough, the toffs get going.

Moving into February, the picture looks more confused. United's third defeat in four games, which prompted the tannoy man at Anfield to declare "God bless Martin O'Neill", leaves them only four points ahead of Chelsea, Blackburn and Liverpool, with Arsenal not out of it either.

On the face of it, Saturday's stalemate therefore represented a missed opportunity for both North-western challengers. The reaction of the Liverpool players, who trudged off with heads bowed, suggested they saw it that way. In contrast, Tim Flowers, outstanding in Blackburn's goal, raised his arms in triumph.

Flowers' action, interpreted by some observers as betraying depressingly limited ambition, may with hindsight seem the more appropriate response. For this match, while not producing the decisive outcome that would have put the cat among the championship pigeons, confirmed a stubborn streak in both sides that bodes well for the run-in.

Liverpool supporters would doubtless prefer resilience to be accompanied by a modicum of the old ruthlessness. Nevertheless, this could well look like a point gained rather than two lost in May's final analysis.

To put matters in perspective, it is less than two months since United won 3-1 at Anfield, and barely a month since they led Roy Evans' side by 12 points. Considering that, and all that went wrong against Blackburn - notably Jason McAteer's broken leg and Steve McManaman's withdrawal with hamstring problems - there was much to admire in the way they went for the jugular in the second half.

Liverpool have often resembled a team of disparate talents struggling for cohesion. Here, in the face of adversity, they found it, only to be reminded that Blackburn, whatever shortcomings they may have, make a virtue out of unity.

Blackburn's own humiliation by United, on the last day of November, has also presaged a spirited recovery. They still trail the leaders by the same margin as they did going into the last game of 1997, but form and the fixture list gave every reason to expect that Roy Hodgson's team would have been burned off by now.

For several individuals it was an afternoon for making as well as taking a point. Under the scrutiny of the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, who will today name his senior and B squads to play Chile this month, Flowers exuded a presence which recalled why he was once considered the only realistic rival to David Seaman.

Nor can Blackburn's other Tim, Sherwood, have harmed his prospects of a first cap. In the first half he dominated the self-styled "Guv'nor", Paul Ince, whose improved performance thereafter could not disguise the impression that he saves his best for internationals.

The true purpose of Hoddle's trip, one suspects, was to assess the merits of Fowler, Michael Owen and Chris Sutton. All things being equal, Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham will be England's first-choice forwards at the World Cup. However, there may yet be a question mark over the former's fitness, while recognised understudies such as Ferdinand, Fowler, Collymore, Wright and even Cole have all endured patchy form of late.

Sutton, despite working harder than any current striker, appeared slow- footed compared with Dominic Matteo. Fowler could not be faulted for effort, but his lack of confidence is now chronic.

Owen, just 18, was the most effective of the three. His pace has always been scorching and his finishing clinical. Now he is showing an improved awareness and ability to link with midfield. Anything less than a place in England's B squad would be tantamount to negligence by Hoddle.

It was Owen's misfortune to come up against two hardened defenders, Stephane Henchoz and Colin Hendry, who were determined no teenager was going to enhance his reputation at their expense. Still, the Swiss had to make a brilliant interception to deny him a goal.

Evans, while overstating the case by describing Liverpool as "magnificent", could have been speaking for Hodgson when he said: "The United game highlighted a few home truths. Since that day I can't ask for more."

He may have to ask his board for more - money for players, that is - after McAteer joined Jamie Redknapp on the long-term casualty list. With the departure of Michael Thomas to Middlesbrough on loan, Liverpool's midfield strength has suddenly been seriously depleted.

Perhaps it is also time for Hodgson to dip into Jack Walker's bulging wallet and try to add the special player who might bridge the gap for Blackburn. He is, after all, more than pounds 8m up on transfers.

United remain favourites, but it will not have escaped Ferguson's notice that the champions' matches at Chelsea and Blackburn and at home to Arsenal and Liverpool all fall within four days or less of the European Cup quarter- and semi-finals. What looked like a romp is a race once more.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; McAteer (Jones, 65), Matteo, Babb, Harkness; McManaman (Berger, h/t), Ince, Carragher, Leonhardsen; Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Riedle, Murphy, Nielsen (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Flowers; Kenna, Henchoz, Hendry, Croft; Ripley, Sherwood, McKinlay, Wilcox; Sutton, Gallacher (Duff, 80). Substitutes not used: Pedersen, Bohinen, Valery, Fettis (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Booking: Blackburn: Hendry.

Man of the match: Flowers.

Attendance: 43,890.

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