Gerrard and Owen prove worth to Benitez

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The Independent Online

Liverpool's inspirational captain, Steven Gerrard, is confident that he will be ready for the Champions' League qualifying match away to AK Graz next Tuesday, and Rafael Benitez believes the team will be ready, too. The new manager withdrew Gerrard before half-time in the final tour match here, in which Liverpool went on to beat Roma 2-1, after a muscle tightened up at the top of his leg. "It's a little problem but not important," Benitez said. His captain added: "I just felt my muscle was a bit tight, but I'm sure I'll be fit for the game in Austria."

Liverpool's inspirational captain, Steven Gerrard, is confident that he will be ready for the Champions' League qualifying match away to AK Graz next Tuesday, and Rafael Benitez believes the team will be ready, too. The new manager withdrew Gerrard before half-time in the final tour match here, in which Liverpool went on to beat Roma 2-1, after a muscle tightened up at the top of his leg. "It's a little problem but not important," Benitez said. His captain added: "I just felt my muscle was a bit tight, but I'm sure I'll be fit for the game in Austria."

Watching Gerrard surge into tackles and hit his long diagonal passes, it was difficult to believe that he might have been playing over here in the blue of Chelsea. A transfer seemed imminent at one stage this summer, but immediately after returning from Euro 2004, he committed himself to Liverpool, believing that progress under new management will follow the stagnation of the past two seasons. Gerrard was insistent before deciding to stay that the squad should be strengthened, but Michael Owen's clinically struck winning goal emphasised that the most important task for Benitez and the club's chief executive, Rick Parry, was to retain the services of the two England men. They have done that and as a bonus imbued the camp with a sense of positive intent. "There's more confidence about the squad now," one player said. "A different atmosphere," another agreed.

On the field that is reflected in moving the ball forward more quickly whenever in possession, with better support from midfield. It was significant that Owen's decisive goal followed an intervention from Dietmar Hamann, who would previously suffer a nose-bleed anywhere near the opposing penalty area. The German won a tackle 20 yards out and the ball fell nicely for Owen to drive in the sweetest of shots.

Owen partnered Florent Sinama-Pongolle for the second half, after Djibril Cissé and Milan Baros started the game. That means that Benitez has used every combination of his four strikers over the course of three games here, in which Liverpool also beat a weakened Celtic 5-1 and lost 1-0 to Porto. Roma, who had half a dozen players missing - their leading striker Francesco Totti needs a knee operation - took the lead through the unmarked Marco Delvecchio before Cissé equalised from what looked an offside position. Cissé's pace has been an outstanding feature of the trip and the manager will probably feel that Owen's finishing ability offers the best foil to it, with a newly confident Baros held in reserve.

Igor Biscan has pushed strongly for a place in the centre of midfield and Josemi, on his debut at right-back, looked as strong as his compatriot Benitez had promised. The lingering weakness is further forward on the flanks, where Vladimir Smicer is out for several months and Harry Kewell owes the club a significant improvement.

"The movement of the forwards," was one of the things picked out by Benitez as a highlight of the tour, for which Liverpool, like Chelsea, are likely to be asked back next summer. Charlie Stillitano, the chief executive of the organisers, claimed average ticket sales of more than 40,000 for the 11 games, but admits that the format needs a competitive element to freshen it up. "We had one game that was a bit dull, between Bayern and Manchester United," he said with some understatement. "But other than that I thought all the teams came out to play." For Liverpool, the next stops are Vienna and Tottenham.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Carragher, Henchoz (Josemi, h-t), Hyypia (Whitbread, 59), Riise; Finnan (Murphy, h-t), Gerrard (Hamann, 38), Biscan (Diao, h-t), Kewell (Warnock, h-t); Baros (Sinama-Pongolle, h-t), Cissé (Owen, h-t).

Roma (4-4-2): Zotti; Curfe, Mexes, Scurto, Panucci; D'Agostini, De Martino, Dacourt (Cerci, 77), Candela (Lanzero, 72); Montella (Corvia, 77), Delvecchio.

Referee: M Kennedy.

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