If England are to beat Greece at Old Trafford in a fortnight's time and qualify automatically for next year's World Cup finals, then they will have to do so without their most lethal marksman. Michael Owen, the hero of Munich, who scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 victory over Germany, is out for at least three weeks after pulling a hamstring in Liverpool's 1-0 victory over Spurs at Anfield yesterday. A scan this morning will confirm that the hamstring in the left leg which has troubled him before has at least been pulled, and the worry now is that this problem does not seem to be going away.
How Sven Goran Eriksson must wish that Gérard Houllier had heeded his own advice. The Liverpool manager, an affirmed disciple of the squad rotational system, has long warned that the singular talents of Owen must not be compromised by over-use. Yesterday the Frenchman chose to rest Owen, starting him on the bench, but with 20 minutes remaining, and Liverpool hanging on to a one-goal lead, he could not resist bringing on the striker.
With seven minutes to go, Owen broke free in customary fashion, but as he fired in his left-footed shot he crashed to the ground, and Eriksson's worst fears were realised as he hobbled off the pitch.
"As soon as Michael hit the ball he realised something had gone. It looks like a pulled hamstring, which means three weeks at least," Houllier said afterwards. "We thought he was over these problems. He had a tiring match against Dortmund and I chose to rest him. If he had started today, you would have said, 'Why didn't you rest him?' "
The question surely is, though, why, having rested him, he saw fit to bring him on with a little over 20 minutes to go, replacing Liverpool's goalscorer, Jari Litmanen. "It was a strange one as he had already had about six runs when his hamstring went," Houllier said. The answer probably lies in the disgruntled figure of Robbie Fowler trudging off after 60 minutes to be replaced by Emile Heskey.
Fowler, who is just getting over his well- publicised spat with the Liverpool management, had looked off his game, but Heskey's link-up with Litmanen did not look ideal. Houllier was merely employing Owen's abilities to play off Heskey. If it is bad news for England, and Fowler must be favourite to fill Owen's boots against Greece, then it is bad, too, for Liverpool. They will also be missing Steven Gerrard, who started a three-match ban yesterday. In Litmanen they have a worthy understudy who proved it with a sublime strike to unpick a well-organised Spurs defence.
It was Glenn Hoddle's side who enjoyed the brighter start with Les Ferdinand's far-post header off a Christian Ziege corner being cleared off the line by Nick Barmby as early as the second minute. Liverpool's sole bright spot in a lifeless opening, was the link-up on the left of Gregory Vignal and John Arne Risse. The latter's throw-in in the sixth minute found Vignal on the edge of the area.
The young French wing-back's instinctive left-foot volley crashed into the Anfield Road stand after bouncing off the crossbar of stranded Spurs keeper Neil Sullivan. There was little to excite until the 32nd minute when Litmanen provided a glimpse of his class. A ball neatly threaded through by Dietmar Hamann put the Finnish striker into the box, but his shot from an angle only found the side netting.
A minute later Fowler had his first chance after Barmby picked him out on the edge of the area. But his shot was uncharacteristically straight at Sullivan.
But the best chance of the half was still to come and Litmanen really should have given Liverpool an advantage at the break. Another fine ball by Hamann in the 44th minute put Litmanen through in a one-on-one with Sullivan. But his weak shot was parried by the goalkeeper.
Spurs, themselves, could then have grabbed the lead but Christian Ziege's stinging drive was kept out by the block of Jerzy Dudek in the Liverpool goal.
Spurs were happy to sit back and let Liverpool run at them and, with the home midfield badly missing the inventiveness of Gerrard, it was going to take something special to unlock the visiting defence.
That something special came in the form of the cultured right foot of Litmanen, whose turn and shot that cannoned in off the post from 30 yards in the 57th minute was, as Hoddle described it, "something out of nothing".
Spurs poured forward and Houllier, realising that his opponents were now vulnerable at the back, chose to utilise the power of Heskey in place of the tiring Fowler. The Liverpool defence, marshalled with increasing authority by Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia, was standing up well.
It was the 68th minute when Houllier decided to enlist Owen to partner Heskey and the move almost paid immediate dividends when the England striker turned the Anfield old boy Ziege and drilled a ball back that narrowly evaded the out-stretched right boot of Heskey.
Three minutes later, in the 74th minute, it was more of the same as Owen's crossed ball this time found Heskey, but his prod could only find the side netting.
It seemed only a matter of time before Owen would score his 10th of the season. Hamann played him into space in the 83rd minute and it was then, when under pressure from Ledley King, that Owen swung left and hit that fateful shot. The three points were won but it may be that this moment will define Liverpool's season.
Liverpool 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 44,116Reuse content