Houllier's European dilemma over Fowler

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In happier times for Robbie Fowler, interest tonight might have centred on whether he would celebrate his first Champions' League goal by revealing a T-shirt slogan expressing solidarity with the would-be striking footballers. Instead, if Fowler faces Dynamo Kiev at Anfield, which is by no means certain, he could be playing not only for Michael Owen's place in England's attack but for his very future at Liverpool.

Fowler would normally have been the logical replacement for the injured Owen in England's crucial World Cup qualifying fixture with Greece at Old Trafford a week on Saturday, as well as for Liverpool as they seek to make the Ukrainian champions their first victims in Group B. But as Gérard Houllier made clear yesterday, when he questioned his captain's mental and physical readiness to compete at the highest level, Fowler's current circumstances are far from normal.

Asked about the 26-year-old striker's form and fitness in the light of his latest below-par display and eventual substitution against Tottenham on Saturday, Houllier replied pointedly: "You saw him." The Liverpool manager said that Fowler's "performance indicators" – his heading, passing and shooting – did not lie. He added: "We're all aware that Robbie needs to play better, and that it's about nobody other than him, and I think he knows it, too."

When it was suggested to Houllier that this gave him a dilemma, since the only other possible partner for Emile Heskey is Jari Litmanen, who prefers a deep-lying role, his response was terse. "The only dilemma is that Robbie is not fit enough. You have to be honest: against Spurs he was at a level where he really has to pick himself up and produce better football. We've got to help him to do that, and it'll probably be a gradual process, but he also has to help himself."

Given that Fowler finished last season with a flurry of vital goals for club and country, and that he has since been through the same pre-season training schedule as his colleagues, his lack of sharpness is both surprising and alarming. Why, Houllier was pressed, was he not in peak condition? Again the answer was blunt and merely invited speculation: "I don't want to answer that."

There was a hint, however, that Fowler's disappointing impact (he has scored one goal) may have psychological roots. "We've spoken and he knows that everybody is ready to help him," Houllier admitted, "whether it's to do more physically or to improve his mental edge."

The use of the word "mental" was intriguing since the Frenchman was adamant Fowler does not lack confidence. If it were true that he feels marginalised by the Heskey-Owen partnership, the latter's hamstring problem had presented him with an opportunity. "We now have three strikers," Houllier said, "so the door is more open than it was."

Houllier insisted that he wants Fowler, who has been a target for Leeds, Chelsea and Blackburn, to stay, expressing his belief that he would be back to his best "sooner rather than later". Yet whether he will be allowed to make a start against Kiev may depend on whether he interprets such unusually candid comments as proof that his future lies away from Anfield or as a spur to prove him wrong.

Fowler's past feats will certainly not sway Houllier, who maintained he would pick Roger Hunt or Ian Rush if they were the criterion. "Reputations and records mean nothing to me," he said. "The present and future are what matters."

One person who will be monitoring events carefully is Sven Goran Eriksson. The England manager was greatly impressed with Fowler when he scored his first competitive international goal in Greece during the summer and again as his typically cool finish sealed victory over Albania last month.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's spy at Kiev's 3-1 defeat by Boavista last week, the former Scotland coach Alex Miller, has warned that they looked a quick, counter-attacking side who created numerous chances. Perennial champions of the former Soviet republic, despite selling Andriy Shevchenko, Sergei Rebrov and Oleg Luzhny, they now have nine nationalities in a squad coached by the veteran Valeri Lobanovski and arrived on Merseyside buoyed by a 7-0 away win at the weekend.

In the competition's all-time rankings, dating back to 1955, Kiev are the top Eastern European club, standing eighth between Manchester United and Barcelona. But the past, echoing Houllier, is another country. In a game Liverpool need to win after two draws, the pedigree of the team who started as the Communist Electrical Workers' Union XI may have less of a bearing than the fall-out from the predicament of Comrade Fowler.

Liverpool (4-4-2; probable): Dudek; Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Vignal; Gerrard, Hamann, McAllister, Riise; Fowler or Litmanen, Heskey.

Dynamo Kiev (4-5-1; probable): Filimonov; Vaschuk, Holovko, Federov, Gavranchich; Bialkevich, Khatskevich, Cernat, Ghioane, Nesmachnyi; Melaschenko.

Referee: P Collina (Italy).