The five most popular words in the Scouse language were uttered by Phil Thompson early on Thursday afternoon. "Michael Owen will be fit," said the caretaker manager, crossing fingers, clutching a four-leaf clover and hurling a lucky horseshoe across the floor of the press-conference room at Melwood.
Michael Owen will be fit. Arsenal, Liverpool's opponents at Anfield this afternoon, will understand better than most the dangers implicit in that simple sentence. The last encounter with the newly crowned European Footballer of the Year, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff last May, is still branded on to their psyche.
By Friday night, the news that Nicolas Anelka had signed on loan for Liverpool had eclipsed even the state of Owen's health. Thompson knows that Owen badly needs help if Liverpool are to push home their challenge for the Premier League title, but no one thought aid would come from such an unexpected arrondissement. While we examined the credentials of Milan Baros, the gifted young Czech Republic international whose work permit was rushed through on Friday, Gérard Houllier – supposedly convalescing in Corsica – was pulling off a considerable coup in persuading Anelka, his former protégé at the French national academy, to make Liverpool his latest staging post. "This is an amazing deal for us and for him," said Thompson yesterday. "It's something we've been looking at for a while because, even with Milan Baros, we were still a bit short up front. The opportunity to sign Nicolas on loan came up and we grabbed it. He is a tremendous player and he has already won the title at Arsenal, which was one of the big things we took into consideration."
If the sale of Robbie Fowler was pure business, the move brokered by Houllier with his old friend and Paris Saint-Germain chairman, Laurent Perpère, is either an inspired piece of opportunism or a desperate gamble. It depends entirely which Anelka flies into Merseyside for Christmas; the deadly goalscorer who helped Arsenal to the Double and Real Madrid to the Champions' League, or the sulky mercenary who turns relationships to stone more quickly than Medusa.
"I know from speaking to him that he is very excited at the prospect of coming to Anfield," Thompson said. "Gérard has known him for a long time and he knows what a good job he can do for us. It's a chance for Nicolas to resurrect his career and claim a place in the French squad for the World Cup, and it means we can cater for all eventualities in our forward play. We can all get something out of this deal."
With the Premier League assuming a new sense of democracy, the quality most in demand over the next few months, says Thompson, will be mental strength, the ability to bounce back from the sort of defeats suffered by both Arsenal and Liverpool in the past week. "Manchester United are capable of going 15 games unbeaten; so are we, because we've done it. But it may be just a mini-run of seven or eight games unbeaten which will count at the end of the season. The way the League is going you'll be able to lose seven or eight games and still win the title."
Resilience and consistency, Liverpool qualities, do not seem to fit the profile of Anelka. The Frenchman's first meeting with Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, the heart and soul of the Liverpool dressing-room, would be worth the entrance fee alone. In solving one problem, the fear is that Anelka will cause a few others, not least with the Kop, who might need some persuading that Anelka for Fowler, a haughty Parisian for a solid Scouser, was a decent swap. But Houllier knows Anelka from his days at the French football academy, and will be confident of his ability to coax the Jekyll from the Hyde. If Anelka fires alongside Owen, "boring" will no longer be a verifiable adjective for Liverpool's critics.
With Liverpool being named team of the year and Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry finishing first and second in France Football's poll for the French footballer of the year, Anfield will be more decorated with honours today than Hollywood on Oscars night, even with Vieira in the stands. Thompson has emphatically rejected the "one-man band" tag now being hung around his team's neck, but a 4-0 drubbing at Stamford Bridge last week, in Owen's absence, did little to support his denial, and Anelka's sudden arrival has only served to reinforce the credibility of the accusation.
"Five days before, we had played Fulham with a certain Michael Owen," Thompson pointed out. "We had plenty of opportunities to win the game and Michael missed a couple, but no one mentioned that. Because we didn't score against Chelsea people pointed to the fact that Michael was injured. That shows a lack of respect. We have players who can score goals from all positions."
True enough, but they need to start doing so sooner rather than later. Manchester United's scoring record over the past five seasons suggests that titles are not won by single goalscorers, however hot, but by twin strikers sharing the load and supported by several midfield players with an obvious eye for goal. That is far from the current profile of Liverpool's scorers. Of the team's last 36 goals in the Premier League, stretching over 23 games, Owen has scored 16, or 44 per cent. The next highest scorer over that same period is Robbie Fowler, with five. Before he left to claim a regular first-team place across the Pennines, Fowler had scored three times for Liverpool this season – a hat-trick against Leicester – a tally matched only by John Arne Riise. Emile Heskey, Owen's main striking partner, has scored twice, while only seven other goals have come from recognised midfielders.
Anelka might be unveiled at Anfield this afternoon, though he will not be registered in time to play. "All being well, he will be involved at Aston Villa on Boxing Day," said Thompson. He will also be available for the return at Highbury in mid-January, where the Frenchman can be guaranteed a reception at least as hostile as Sol Campbell's recent return to White Hart Lane. Anelka's departure from Arsenal to Real Madrid left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Highbury fans. Anelka's commitment to the red cause on Merseyside will be minutely scrutinised over the next few months, not least because Thompson summoned his own experiences to define the qualities of potential champions.
"You need to dig deep when things are going wrong," he reflected. "That is the essence of it. When criticism is levelled against you, you have to respond, keep everything together, keep everything in house and make sure the bonding is still there. We will be up there when it [the title] is being dished out because we have a strong mentality."
Just how strong will be the subject of detailed inspection by two other Frenchmen, Henry and Pires, today. Close analysis of the tape from Chelsea showed no gaping fault-lines in the Liverpool ranks; Arsenal's mental frailty will be most acutely documented by Graham Poll, who had to tolerate a tirade of abuse from Henry and others at the end of an ill-tempered defeat against Newcastle. Bobby Robson spoke angrily afterwards about clubs needing to learn how to lose. "You have to respect the opposition as a team and a club," Thompson said. "Everyone wants to be a winner, but there are only so many trophies to go round. There will be a lot of teams at the end of the season who have paid out a lot of money but who are going to miss out. You have to respect people because this is a difficult job."
From someone tutored by Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, men who did not comprehend the meaning of defeat, this was a particularly robust testimony. Equally telling is the fact that Liverpool have not lost in the Premier League when Owen has scored since 27 February 1999. Nicolas Anelka, take note.Reuse content