Owen's gloom for Stadium of Light

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The Independent Online

Michael Owen may have fired nothing but blanks in the battle of Britain but the shot he struck on target at Sunderland yesterday helped Liverpool add momentum to their emerging championship challenge - and to a place in the record books.

Michael Owen may have fired nothing but blanks in the battle of Britain but the shot he struck on target at Sunderland yesterday helped Liverpool add momentum to their emerging championship challenge - and to a place in the record books.

In eluding the challenge of Jody Craddock and clipping a right-foot shot over Thomas Sorensen in the 63rd minute, the teenaged striker set Gérard Houllier's side on the road to the first victory by a visiting team in a Premier League fixture at the Stadium of Light.

Not that it was a convincing victory, Patrik Berger's 85th-minute clincher notwithstanding. Liverpool's last defeat in a league match on Wearside dates back to August 1958 when goals by Reg Pearce and Don Kitchenbrand earned Sunderland their first win as a Second Division club. But they were living dangerously until Owen struck.

It was always going to be a test of strength for Sunderland - a test of precisely how much strength they have in depth. Having descended to the bottom of the Fair Play League, five players were suspended yesterday, among them first-team regulars Steve Bould, Stefan Schwarz and Chris Makin.

Craddock, recalled from a loan spell with Sheffield United, joined Paul Butler in place of Bould at the centre of a defence which had tightened significantly since Sunderland's rude awakening in the Premiership at Chelsea back in August.

In 13 league games since that 4-0 opening day defeat, Soren-sen had conceded only eight goals - form that earned him his first cap for Denmark, as a substitute for the injured Peter Schmeichel against Israel in Copenhagen on Wednesday.

The Sunderland goalkeeper was no doubt relieved to discover that Robbie Fowler was still deemed unfit for first-team action, with Danny Murphy pressed into striking service alongside Owen. The Dane had little more than a spectating role. Indeed, neither he nor the Dutchman at the opposite end of the pitch, Sander Westerveld, were seriously tested as both teams strove in vain to forge openings in a tight first quarter.

Berger did manage one passable impression of a shot from the outer fringes of the Sunderland penalty area, though the Czech's swinging, left-footed effort lacked the power and direction to trouble Sorensen.

There was also a scare of sorts for Sunderland in the 13th minute when Owen, having drifted wide on the left in search of possession, cut inside Darren Williams and into the box. Before he could set his sights on goal, however, the teenager was thwarted by Nicky Summerbee's covering tackle.

Space was at a premium in all areas of the pitch, with Jamie Redknapp, restored to a more comfortable central position after filling the problematic left side for England, showing only fleeting signs of giving Liverpool a controlling midfield influence.

At least, though, from the Liverpool captain's point of view, the half-chances were falling to his team. A right-wing corner from Berger found Rigobert Song on the six-yard line, though the ball was hacked clear before the Cameroon defender could shoot.

It took Sunderland 27 minutes to muster their first chance, Gavin McCann swerving wide a right-foot shot from 15 yards, but they proceeded to build up an attacking head of steam.

Niall Quinn, in fact, could hardly have come closer to scoring than he did in the 34th minute. Controlling a lofted ball from Alex Rae on the right edge of the Liverpool area, the big Irishman showed impressive dexterity in turning to elude Sami Hyypia and deftly chipping a right-foot shot over the diving Westerveld - only to watch in frustration as Song cleared the ball off the line.

There had been more than a suspicion of Hyypia attempting to hold back Quinn and the Finn appeared to make illegal use of his arms again two minutes later when Quinn was grounded in attempting to reach a Summerbee cross with his head. In the former kingdom of Northumbria, however, Dermot Gallagher was blind to both offences and Liverpool survived into the second half on level terms.

Not that they were worry-free for very long. One minute into the second half, Summerbee crossed from wide on the right and the Liverpool defence could only watch with relief as Kevin Phillips, with the goal at his mercy from six yards out, headed tamely wide.

The momentum was still firmly with Sunderland and it took a fine diving save from Westerveld to deny them in the 54th minute, the Dutchman flying to his right to push wide Eric Roy's goal-bound shot.

With Owen's goal, the tide turned against Sunderland, though Roy and Phillips went close before Berger's right-foot drive, five minutes from time, confirmed their first league defeat at home for 12 months. Peter Reid, a Liverpool fan as a boy, was in need of cheering up as the final whistle blew.

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