FOOTBALL: Owen's stock takes a dive - PARK West Ham United 1 Liverpool 0 Sinclair 44 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 26,043

Sinclair breaks the deadlock to end Liverpool's winning sequence and stall the Houllier renaissance
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The Independent Online
IT WAS enough to make Alf Garnett splutter into his post-match ale. "Scouse git" would have been the politest of reactions by West Ham United's celebrated, fictional follower after the Liverpool and England striker, Michael Owen, was adjudged to have committed that most heinous of sins.

Cheated his beloved 'ammers by an ill-deserved penalty. Yet that incident, when many of the spectators were already queueing for their half-time cuppa, turned out to be the pivotal moment of a contest that, rather like a plate of jellied eels, always promised more than it offered.

It would not be the first time the quicksilver youngster has fallen suspiciously in the penalty area, on this occasion under the challenge of defender Neil Ruddock and the attentions of referee Graham Barber. Owen appeared contrite when receiving a yellow card but television evidence later suggested that he may have been hard done by.

Is there a trend here? Against Belgium for England, there was a similar occurrence. One could mention the one he got away with against Argentina. As the respective supporters were still debating the justice or injustice of it all, West Ham thrust upfield and scored what proved to be the winner, inflicting on Liverpool their first defeat in eight games.

Yet it says much about the moribund nature of this game that the discussion afterwards centred around Owen's so-called indiscretion. When West Ham's Harry Redknapp suggested "Neither team played particularly well", he was being particularly kind. Typically, neither manager had a view of the Owen incident, but Redknapp declared: "Ruddock told me at half-time that he didn't actually touch him. He just slid alongside him." He added wryly: "What I don't understand is that his [Owen's] pace could have taken him past. I don't know what made him go over."

What made it all the more embarrassing for Gerard Houllier was that it followed his pre-match view that his players should beware the behaviour of Paolo Di Canio, whom he variously suggested had been guilty of diving, overacting and provocation. Particularly so, with Mr Barber, the Premiership's most draconian referee, in charge. It all shows how wrong preconceptions can be.

Quite simply, nobody played to character. The official, such an enthusiastic distributor of his cards that he averaged over six a game before yesterday, was positively niggardly with them this time. Di Canio behaved impeccably and Liverpool, without the experienced head of the West Ham manager's son, Jamie, to guide the young players, rarely appeared likely to extend their fine run of form. The club, who found themselves pariahs of Europe after a mundane last season, have been feasting voraciously from the Premiership table of late.

Many would suggest without the distractions of needing to run a continental operation. But West Ham are no easy pickings at home, as they emphasised yet again here, and remain unbeaten on familiar territory.

How frequently do we see the expectations of the elite founder at this most claustrophobic of stadiums, where Redknapp's men would require a knife to the throat before they yield points. Liverpool's youngsters, Danny Murphy and David Thompson, the latter replacing Patrik Berger, who departed with a twisted knee early on, performed brightly enough, but failed to produce enough clear opportunities to merit the point they craved.

Liverpool's four successive victories had started with the 1-0 triumph against West Ham a month ago when Titi Camara had scored. He was not available yesterday and neither was Redknapp, who will probably require surgery for a cartilage problem, though a final decision will be made today.

It was all so anticlimactic. Even the showdown anticipated between the teenagers Owen and Joe Cole will have to wait another day. Neither the Anfield predator, who normally produces such chilling precision, nor Cole, West Ham's impudent attacking midfielder, were quite at their best, although the latter exhibited some examples of breathtaking talent which bodes well.

Before half-time Liverpool's strategy of deploying Owen as a solitary striker, but supported by the Under-21 international Murphy, Berger and Vegard Heggem converging from the flanks, looked like frustrating West Ham. Until their goal in added time the home team had failed to test the goalkeeper Sander Westerveld. Then Steve Lomas, the Hammers' captain, delivered an inviting cross from the left and, despite Westerveld's agility in denying Di Canio, Trevor Sinclair followed up to force the ball home.

But otherwise there was little opportunity for Cole, who appeared initially the most plausible conduit for attack, to use his considerable wiles to pressure the visitors' rearguard. The strikers Paulo Wanchope and Di Canio too frequently found themselves outnumbered by a defence which, of late, has begun to show the resistance that was synonymous with Liverpool teams of the past. It is significant that of their previous run before yesterday, five games had been without a goal conceded. Sami Hyypia, the towering Finn, must take much of the credit for that, though comparisons already being made with Alan Hansen and Tony Adams are possibly a trifle premature. He again impressed yesterday.

The second half belonged territorially to Houllier's men. Owen thought he had equalised when he headed home eight minutes after the break, only to find that Rigobert Song's cross, which led to it, had drifted out of play.

Liverpool threw on the lanky German Erik Meijer in the latter stages, after which Owen was withdrawn with cramp, but Houllier's changes failed to galvanise his team, who might well have gone further behind when Di Canio headed against a post and Wanchope struck his follow-up over the bar.

The latter gestured his irritation to the main stand when replaced by Paul Kitson. Not quite the Hammers' way, but at least their supporters had something to savour.

By then Liverpool's followers already recognised that their team's renaissance was back on hold.