Kewell answers critics with surprise strike

Aston Villa 1 - Liverpool 1
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The Independent Online

It says much about the way the once highly visible Harry Kewell has fallen off the radar lately that David O'Leary, his manager for four years at Leeds, assumed it must have been someone else who had put Liverpool in front on Saturday.

It says much about the way the once highly visible Harry Kewell has fallen off the radar lately that David O'Leary, his manager for four years at Leeds, assumed it must have been someone else who had put Liverpool in front on Saturday.

As Jamie Carragher headed a Steven Gerrard cross into the six-yard box, O'Leary's eyes were focused so exclusively on his own defenders that the identity of the player nodding the ball past Thomas Sorensen did not register. He admits he was surprised to learn who it was. "I didn't realise Harry had scored," the Villa manager said. "I just assumed it was [Dietmar] Hamann or one of the other taller guys who had gone into the box."

It was not intended as a slight, although O'Leary has been part of the debate over Kewell's declining form since Liverpool paid £5m for him in July last year. However, he would have had to trawl through a very tall stack of videotapes to rerun Kewell's last goal so the assumption, perhaps, was understandable.

Given that Kewell is clearly sensitive to criticism - he has a libel action pending against Gary Lineker over comments made after his transfer from Leeds - O'Leary might be wise to pick his words carefully, although his assertion that Kewell has been "very indifferent, not the player who burst on to the scene at Leeds" is one with which even the striker agrees.

Speaking last week to the Australian press, Kewell said: "I've been the target for a few people who have rightly said I'm not up to scratch. Everybody has a time when things go badly and this is my turn.

"What disappointments me," he added, "is some of them have hammered me without acknowledging that I've not been fully fit."

Kewell blames an ankle injury sustained playing for Australia in October which he would have preferred to rest had Liverpool not been so short of strikers. "I have had to do my bit for the team but at this level if you can't run freely it's difficult, if not impossible, to deliver," he said.

Ironically, the match against Arsenal last weekend, after which criticisms reached a crescendo, was the first, he claimed, in which he had felt pain-free. Liverpool's manager, Rafael Benitez, hopes Saturday's goal, which ended a barren run stretching back to last February, will be a turning point.

"The most important thing about Harry is the future and I am very optimistic," Benitez said. "I think he needed a goal. He is a very good player and I think in the future we will see a lot of very good games from Harry.

"I have spoken to him many times. He knows he is not playing at his level, he knows he needs to train hard. But I think today he played well as a winger and as a striker."

Kewell's team-mate Sami Hyypia echoed those thoughts. "Harry has been criticised a lot and I'm glad for him that he got his goal. He needs his confidence to perform at his best. Lately he has played much better and this goal confirms his confidence is coming back."

Benitez will hope it is sooner rather than later. Liverpool's failure to convert their total dominance of Villa into three points only emphasised how much they need a proficient striker.

Neil Mellor, after his heroics against Arsenal, ploughed his lone furrow as best he could but fluffed his best chance. While it would be harsh to accuse Gerrard of being wasteful after giving tireless support in attack, the Liverpool captain did have three or four decent chances, but took none. Happily, Milan Baros may play at least some part against Olympiakos in Wednesday's critical Champions' League tie.

A win is Liverpool's requirement if they are to reach the knock-out phase but at least the level of Saturday's form is encouraging. "We were simply outclassed," conceded O'Leary, who praised the performance of his 19-year-old midfielder, Steve Davis, up against the likes of Gerrard, Hamann and Xabi Alonso, but admitted that Nolberto Solano's excellent, curled free-kick a minute before half-time "got us out of jail, big time".

Goals: Kewell (16) 0-1; Solano (44) 1-1.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De la Cruz, Mellberg, Delaney, Samuel; Solano, McCann (Berson, 69), Davis, Barry; Angel, Cole (L Moore, 35). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Whittingham, Ridgewell.

Liverpool (4-5-1): Kirkland; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Nunez (Josemi, h-t), Gerrard (Sinama-Pongolle, 82), Hamann, Alonso, Kewell; Mellor (Traoré, 62). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Diao.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Aston Villa: Mellberg.

Man of the match: Davis.

Attendance: 42,593.