Owen's spectre haunts unsettled Liverpool display

Liverpool 1 Sunderland 0
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The Independent Football

Alas, the only place you cannot find Owen in Anfield is where he is blatantly most needed - in front of the opposition's goal. And until Rafael Benitez buckles some time in the next 10 days, nor will he be. At least Sunderland gave the Spaniard a nasty kick in the back of the knees here to help him on his way.

Even David Moores, the Liverpool chairman, might have been glad of Saturday and the perfect afternoon for all those who desire the Real Madrid want-away to be back where he belongs. Three points gained, but one point written out in huge letters. "We need a finisher," this screamed. "Surely better the Red Devil-hater you know."

Moores obviously believes so, having suggested he is prepared to dip into his own well-guarded funds to remove seemingly the last excuse for Benitez not to buy Owen. The manager is involved in a complex series of deals that might eventually see Milan Baros off to Villa Park with Nolberto Solano coming the other way. This would release the monies to appease Real and ease what appears to be Benitez's principal worry - a right winger.

Ironically, the entrance of Solano - and hence that of Owen - could also serve to rejuvenate Djibril Cissé, who was so obviously aghast at having to fill the wide-right position against Sunderland and whose undoubted talent should not be judged on one shambolic showing. The spectral figure of Owen is behind the reports linking the misfiring Frenchman with a loan move back to his home country, and despite Benitez insisting "I will not be selling him", it was perhaps excusable for Cissé to suffer an off day.

Still, it was difficult to imagine Owen, in any mood, fluffing the tap-in that Cissé did in the opening quarter or, indeed, at least two others later on when Benitez was forced to shift back to 4-4-2.

A calf injury to Steven Gerrard necessitated that move before the hour after the captain's frustration with a display only rescued by Xabi Alonso's 25-yard free-kick had boiled over perilously close to a red card. His would have been far more deserving than that of Andy Welsh, whose negligible piece of petulance on Luis Garcia was a harsh and premature ending to the uprising Sunderland had been setting in motion.

"It will be hard enough staying in this division without having things like that going against us," Mick McCarthy said, reflecting on his side's 17th straight Premiership defeat. "But anyway, I'm happy because we gave them a real run for their money."

That Liverpool grimly held on this time would be no consolation should the unthinkable happen in the second leg of their Champions' League qualifier at home to CSKA Sofia tomorrow. Any Bulgarian comeback from a 3-1 deficit really would be pricey. And Gerrard's likely absence should focus minds that continue to wander to the Spanish capital.

No Champions' League equals no Michael Owen. Even Benitez would break his silence to concede that.

Goal: Alonso (24) 1-0.

Liverpool (4-1-4-1): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Warnock; Alonso; Cissé (Baros, 75), Sissoko, Gerrard (Luis Garcia, 55), Zenden (Riise, 63); Morientes. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Josemi.

Sunderland (4-5-1): Davis; Nosworthy, Breen, Stubbs, Arca; Lawrence (Elliott, 66), Miller, Whitehead, Robinson (Woods, 81), Welsh; Gray (Brown, 66). Substitutes not used: Murphy (gk), Caldwell.

Referee: B Knight (Kent).

Booked: Liverpool Gerrard, Sissoko; Sunderland Breen, Robinson, Nosworthy.

Sent off: Welsh (74).

Man of the match: Alonso.

Attendance: 44,913.