The shadow of Robbie Fowler hung over Anfield, but down below a familiar figure assumed the role of saviour. It was as if last season had never ended. Somehow Liverpool fashioned victory from an unpromising and, at times, downright laboured display; somehow, living off scraps, Michael Owen conjured the two goals which fulfilled the expectations of a desperately tense Anfield.
When Fowler left his seat in the stand just before the end, a cry of "There's only one Robbie Fowler" rose from the corner of the ground. Moments later, in recompense, came an embarrassed chant for Gérard Houllier, the Liverpool manager whose stance against his disgruntled striker has been warmly applauded elsewhere in the game. No one can make up their mind who to support in the stand-off between Fowler and Phil Thompson, two of Anfield's favourite sons. Houllier has demanded that Fowler apologise personally to Thompson but, as there had been no response by kick-off, Fowler was not included in the squad.
"We have opened our arms five times to him," said Houllier yesterday. "Now it is down to him. What is he thinking about? If he says he cares about Liverpool, he should have played properly against Manchester United last week and he should have played today. He's acting as if he doesn't want Liverpool."
The timing of Fowler's training-ground spat with Thompson could not have been worse, and Houllier must be cursing the sort of incident which can all too easily dominate a season and demoralise a dressing room. He fielded enough questions about Fowler's discontent last season without having his agenda marked once more. The breaking point, one way or another, cannot be too far distant.
Asked what would happen if Fowler refused the olive branch, Houllier replied: "In that case, we'll see, but don't expect me to soften my position."
Thank goodness, then, for Owen, whose goals obscured the terrible predictability of much of Liverpool's attacking play. Isolated too often with a phalanx of light-blue shirts around him, Owen settled Liverpool's nerves with a neat finish from Gary McAllister's backheel 18 minutes into the season and, after Paolo Di Canio had equalised from the penalty spot on the half hour, spared the Reds any further blushes with a cross-shot into the far corner of Shaka Hislop's net 13 minutes from time.
But it was all too apparent that if Liverpool are to mount a serious challenge for the titlethey will need more penetration up front, more creativity from the midfield, more width and someone to share the striking burden with Owen. With four games in the next nine days, Fowler's apology cannot come too soon.
To add to Houllier's woes, Sander Westerveld joined the injury list, which already included Emile Heskey, Steven Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Patrik Berger. The one bright spot was the return of Jamie Redknapp after almost a year out with a knee injury. Redknapp arrived to the biggest cheer of the afternoon after 72 minutes, though, as Houllier admitted, it will be a few weeks before he is fully fit. "He's not ready, but he's getting his confidence back and he's worked so hard to come back. It was very emotional for me." Robbie Fowler, please note.
Not that West Ham came with much of a reputation. Given that the future of England's midfield wears claret and blue, the lowly expectation of Glenn Roeder's charges is slightly baffling. To thrive, they need Michael Carrick and Joe Cole to mature quickly as Premier League midfielders and Di Canio to commit himself fully to the cause of East London. Roeder hopes to spend the £11m from the sale of Frank Lampard on three new players to strengthen the smallest squad in the division.
There was nothing wrong, though, with West Ham's industry yesterday, and with a little more composure in front of goal they might have come away with more than a gallant defeat. The penalty apart, their best chance fell to Cole just before half-time, but his shot from 20 yards lacked the power to beat Pegguy Arphexad. It was a warning to the home side, who had already conceded a farcical equaliser on the half-hour mark when Jamie Carragher's miscued clearance fell to Svetoslav Todorov inside the penalty area. Stéphane Henchoz lunged desperately into the tackle and referee Jeff Winter pointed to the penalty spot. Di Canio, ever the showman, chipped the ball in a mocking arc past Arphexad to record West Ham's third goal in eight visits to Anfield.
Anfield's discontent was transmitted in a thundering silence; West Ham could barely believe their luck. Markus Babbel was replaced by John Arne Riise, a £4.6m signing from Monaco, at half-time, while Carragher switched to right-back, his third different position of the week. Still Liverpool found it hard to raise the tempo as West Ham tackled with unusual relish and Liverpool's passing lacked its usual crispness. Even the arrival of Nick Barmby for Igor Biscan failed to lift home spirits until Owen took advantage of a momentary lapse of concentration in the West Ham defence to fire home the winner. "To be fair," said Roeder, "we managed to restrict him to two chances." Unfortunately, a shaft of daylight is all Owen needs.
Liverpool 2 West Ham United 1
Owen 18, 77 Di Canio pen 30
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 43,935Reuse content