Le Tissier trumps Owen

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The Independent Football

Everything seemed to be going so well for Liverpool. Three goals up after not much more than an hour, two from Michael Owen who had proved his readiness for England's game against France next Saturday. Then on came Matthew Le Tissier, long forgotten by England but always the South-ampton fans' favourite son. The lead was lost and Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier admitted: "If I was one of those managers who threw plastic cups across dressing rooms, I would have done it today."

Everything seemed to be going so well for Liverpool. Three goals up after not much more than an hour, two from Michael Owen who had proved his readiness for England's game against France next Saturday. Then on came Matthew Le Tissier, long forgotten by England but always the South-ampton fans' favourite son. The lead was lost and Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier admitted: "If I was one of those managers who threw plastic cups across dressing rooms, I would have done it today."

Southampton's manager, Glenn Hoddle, contended: "At 3-0 down I still reckon that the only difference between the teams was Michael Owen. And in the end I was even disappointed that we didn't win."

Without doubt he was right about Owen, who Houllier said, rightly, was "back to his best." But Southampton's recovery in the last 18 minutes, with the equaliser in injury time, owed as much to what Houllier call-ed a "Jekyll and Hyde performance" and loss of concentrat- ion as Le Tissier's presence.

Everyone at Southampton knows that this season, more than any in their oft-threatened past, they must stay up to justify a move to an expensive new stadium. Yet after two trouble-some early fixtures, with Kevin Davies out for several games with a cracked toe, the worry lines were already broadening.

Hoddle even resorted to old arguments about the need for professional referees after five players were cautioned against Coventry. More positively, he dropped his first-choice goalkeeper, Paul Jones, who did not excell against Coventry, and replaced him with Neil Moss. He also brought in Joe Tessem, who was inspirational.

Tessem's physical strength in midfield immediately gave them power that was lacking in the two previous matches and, significantly, provided Uwe Rösler, the lone central striker, with plenty of possession. But Liverpool's vivid counter-attacking brought about the really meaningful early hints of what should have become a welcome, substantial win.

Nick Barmby's tenacity coming out of midfield on the left was productive. After nine minutes of mainly home pressure, he broke away and played a defence-teasing low cross that Owen instantly controlled in the area, but he shot too quickly and it curled wide. Yet the speed with which he had taken up a threatening position was familiarly impressive.

Owen's ability to find space in the area was not always entirely of his own making. Hoddle's worries that his defence have been too slow to react to danger were borne out on 23 minutes when Vladimir Smicer played the ball directly into the area. Claus Lundekvam hesitated as Owen took possession, Moss came out and Owen saw the target reducing, so he whipped a left-foot shot as fast as he could in off the far post.

Southampton rued the moment that Rösler headed only a fraction over the bar from the industrious Tessem's centre, more so as Barmby slithered a pass forward to Smicer who should have done better than slide the ball wide. But Tessem kept offering chances to recov-er, as did Marian Pahars, who delivered Hassan Kachloul a clear chance after 33 minutes but the ensuing volley from an inviting range clipped the post.

In their determination to equalise, Southampton were at times their own worst enem-ies. The need to support Rösler in attack was obvious but caused confusion in the air, never more frustratingly than just before half-time. Pahars centred high to the far post and Dean Richards had a clear sight of goal, only for Kachloul to try a header he should have left to his colleague: another error soon to be punished.

Ten minutes into the second half, Lundekvam slightly unbalanced Smicer near the edge of the area. He fell and referee Jeff Winter surprisingly awarded a free-kick which Dietmar Hamann thumped into the wall. But if Southampton thought justice was done, they were wrong. The ball screwed away for a corner, Smicer took it and Sammi Hyypia headed over a line of defenders and Moss for Liverpool's second.

If Owen needed to prove his fitness he had already comfortably done that. His sharpness was removed from doubt as Smicer played a neat forward pass on 64 minutes and Owen simply turned Richards into a static obstacle, rounded him and easily beat Moss.

Naturally, when Le Tissier came on, the crowd believed there was no such thing as a lost cause. He twice sliced shots inches wide and in the small ray of late hope Richards headed on to the crossbar.

Then Pahars headed inside the far post from Tessem. The ray of optimism grew into a vision of daylight as, from Mark Draper's centre, James Beattie headed on to another substitute, Tahar El Khalej, who himself back-headed a second goal. Remarkably, Le Tissier earned a draw when, from his 90th-minute cross, Djimi Traore let Pahars pass him and side-foot in the equaliser.

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