Football: Rest is as good as a cure for Owen

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The Independent Online
JON OLAV HJELDE stood for a moment, presumably imploring the ground beneath him to open up and devour him, then turned and trudged his way back to the torture chamber, a sad, resigned expression on his face.

Some 20 yards away, Michael Owen, too, had paused, after sliding on his belly in celebration and climbing to his feet to take the acclaim of the gallery. His countenance radiated the joy and defiance of a young man challenging anyone ever to dare doubt him again.

For all the talk of his needing the occasional rest, he palpably regarded his omission, four days earlier, as an affront. This was his response, or to be more precise, just a part of it. He destroyed Hjelde in the process of dispatching his second goal. Two more were to follow.

His display was wondrous and complete: chasing, competing, supporting and inspiring as well as scoring goals with his trademark bravura.

Owen's tenacity helped paved the way to his first, which he planted in the far top corner of Dave Beasant's net with utter self-assurance. The second combined speed, control and impudence in its execution. He completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot, as everyone in the house knew he would.

His fourth followed a throw-out from goalkeeper David James, who confirmed normality had returned to Liverpool with three second-half fumbles. Owen required a second attempt to beat Beasant this time, but again his pace and belief had made it possible.

When Jamie Redknapp is recovered from his latest injury and restored to the midfield, the supply to Owen should be still more plentiful, an ominous prospect for the rest of the Premiership.

It is, surely, not so much a question of when Owen plays as who plays with him and against him. Playing against him as Nottingham Forest did, with lumbering central defenders, and inviting him to run, will have inevitably dire consequences.

By pushing up, the Forest back line were able to trap Owen offside frequently, but that policy is inherently precarious and limited in its scope.

The England striker duly managed to break through often enough to wreak havoc. Deeper, compact resistance has proved more successful against that lightening pace and twinkling footwork. Forest, in any case, currently represent a soft touch for any of the better attackers in the Premiership. Owen will have days of hard labour ahead of him, perhaps as early as this weekend, when Liverpool visit Leicester City.

His front-line partner for that match will presumably be Karlheinz Riedle, with whom he forged a balanced and effective alliance against Forest. The German provides the foil and variation, experience and aerial presence.

That appears to leave Robbie Fowler as the third man in the Anfield equation, although he may well have the chance to flex his muscles in tomorrow evening's Worthington Cup-tie against Fulham.

Gerard Houllier, one of Liverpool's two managers, maintains Fowler was pressed into first-team service, following injury, ahead of schedule and that he still has ground to make up. The inference is he will now be given the opportunity to fully recuperate.

A cop-out? Perhaps. At some stage, however, difficult choices will have to be made again and time is not on Riedle's side. Owen and Fowler ought to represent the partnership of the future, but, as yet, theirs seems the least compatible combo of the three. Expediency may ultimately be the determining factor.

Liverpool's other manager, Roy Evans, resisted any temptation to claim credit for Owen's rejuvenation, contenting himself with: "No one will ever know if it was the right decision."

He did reaffirm his intention to go on protecting his precious and precocious asset and, in justifying his strategy, took what amounted to a side swipe at Glenn Hoddle, saying: "England won't rest him."

Owen's first League goals for almost two months earned Liverpool's first maximum points in six matches, which reveals as much about Forest's inadequacies as the 18-year-old's pre-eminence.

Dave Bassett's post-match observation that "fortunately, we still have 28 games to go," is indicative that he has begun to prepare himself for a winter-long struggle against relegation. He must eliminate the defensive howlers that undermined the team's cause in this match, resolve the Pierre van Hooijdonk affair to fund the strengthening of his attack, and hope Steve Stone steers clear of further injury and can conjure more of the magic he produced in one mesmerising moment to set up Dougie Freedman's goal. "Stoney's improving with every game," Bassett said. "But sometimes he's trying too much."

Unlike Evans and Houllier, Bassett has few options. He can scarcely afford to leave out his best player.

Goals: Owen (10) 1-0; Freedman (18) 1-1; Owen (23) 2-1; Owen pen (71) 4-1; Owen (77) 5-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; Heggem, Carragher, Staunton, Bjornebye; McManaman (Thompson, 77), McAteer, Ince, Berger; Owen, Riedle. Substitutes not used: Kvarme, Fowler, Harkness, Friedel (gk).

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Beasant; Bonalair, Hjelde, Chettle, Rogers; Stone, Gemmill, Armstrong, Bart-Williams; Freedman, Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Louis-Jean, Lyttle, Gray, Harewood, Crossley (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Booking: Forest: Hjelde.

Man of the match: Owen.

Attendance: 44,595.