Football: Southampton in credit despite Owen double

Liverpool 2 Owen 24, 90 Southampton 3 Hirst pen 8, 90, Osten stad 85 Attendance: 43,550
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MICHAEL Owen's challenge for a place in England's team to play Chile on Wednesday and perhaps even make a claim to appear alongside Alan Shearer in the World Cup this summer, grew with two goals at Anfield yesterday, but only amid widespread dissatisfaction in a costly Liverpool defeat which did huge credit to injury-hit Southampton.

For a change, the main talking point on Merseyside in the week had been less of the possibility of Liverpool catching Manchester United than Robbie Fowler's omission from Glenn Hoddle's squad and Owen's chances of becoming the country's most successful international late arrival in an England World Cup team since Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters in 1966.

But the week ended with Southampton, who suffered more nasty injuries and omitted Matt Le Tissier, outfighting Liverpool. Owen's personal achievement was submerged in the dissatisfaction of team failure on a day United's position was eroded and Roy Evans had admitted his defence "handed Southampton goals on a plate".

Twice Owen might have taken Liverpool into the lead before the fifth minute, but his pace was not quite matched by his touch and three minutes later Liverpool began to regret that unusual occurrence. Kevin Davies had made a couple of interesting runs past Paul Ince and Phil Babb, but it was Matthew Oakley who brought about a surprising lead for the visitors when his breakaway took him just inside the penalty area, ending with a crushing interception by David James. The referee confidently awarded the penalty and David Hirst struck it home.

Owen urgently needed to find his normal finishing touch and he did so after 23 minutes, feeding off the tenacity of Fowler in a crowded penalty area. Fowler diverted attention and from Rob Jones's cross Owen was in position to enhance his reputation, pushing in another of those predatory goals that make him a special talent.

Losing Davies probably made Southampton feel they had been deprived of their match-winner, while the loss of Claus Lundekvam just after the interval could have ruined their defensive stability. As it was, Liverpool's accuracy of passing faded, Steve McManaman rarely beat the second tackle, and Ince was never a dominating force.

Attempting to lift his ailing team, Evans sent on Patrik Berger and Danny Murphy, but Southampton were as stubborn as their reputation and a delight to their old Evertonian manager, Dave Jones.

With United struggling against Bolton at Old Trafford, Liverpool's opportunity to turn the screw became a message that spread around the Anfield crowd, without raising a response on the field. Even so, the Southampton goalkeeper Paul Jones was a superb buffer.

With five minutes left, a neat backheel in midfield by Hirst invited Egil Ostenstad to rush directly at goal, and Liverpool could only blame their negligent defence when he calmly placed his shot beyond James. Hirst merely added embarrassment to discontent when beating three tackles to take Southampton's third, which Owen's late header did nothing to redress.