Liverpool 1 WBA 0: Kewell winning hearts in role of Liverpool's comeback kid

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The Independent Football

A year of unwelcome substitutions for Harry Kewell reached a fitting conclusion on Saturday, the Australian international withdrawn long before the end of Liverpool's 10th Premiership victory in succession and with the home crowd delivering an unequivocal verdict on his contribution.

Kewell hobbled out of two cup finals in 2005 and required surgery on the groin injury that prompted his departure from the Champions' League final in May, though not before the Liverpool supporters who had grown weary of his chronic injury problems jeered him from the pitch at the Ataturk Stadium.

His recovery has been long and, for those inspired by the memories of his displays for Leeds United, painfully slow, but those same supporters confirmed its success on Saturday when he received a standing ovation at Anfield for his 68-minute performance against West Bromwich Albion.

The reasons for Kewell's early exit also suggest 2006 could finally be the year Liverpool witness the best of the 27-year-old. He was replaced not because of a lack of form or fitness, but purely because Rafael Benitez wanted to conserve his strength and growing influence for today's trip to the Reebok Stadium.

"I am trying to help Harry and to protect him," said Benitez. "It is important to get him to play 90 minutes regularly but now we need to use him little by little."

Benitez publicly questioned the midfielder's appetite on several occasions last season, such was his unwillingness to play through the pain barrier, and was engaged in an ongoing dispute with the Australian Football Federation and the player's agent, Bernie Mandic, over the best way to treat his procession of injuries.

Now, however, he regards Kewell as an integral part of his rapidly developing team, his value underlined by the delivery that broke the Baggies' dogged resistance on Saturday and enabled Peter Crouch to settle the contest with his seventh goal in eight games.

"I have never lost faith in Harry," added the Liverpool manager. "He is a player every manager would love to have in his team or, if he didn't, would try to sign.

"We have supported him and given him confidence and now he is giving us a lot back. I had problems with the people around him and he was getting some bad advice but now he is focusing on his game and working hard."

Kewell would have had a hat-trick inside 22 minutes but for the outstanding performance of Tomasz Kuszczak, the goalkeeper damaging Chris Kirkland's World Cup prospects by keeping him out of the Albion team while advancing his own claims for Poland.

Kuszczak denied the Australian three times before the break, the final save after John Arne Riise's daisycutter had struck the post, as well as Steven Gerrard, Crouch and the Norwegian as Liverpool dominated - until the England striker rose between Curtis Davies and Neil Clement in the 52nd minute and headed Kewell's cross into the bottom corner.

"Their keeper had the game of his life," said Benitez, whose team will equal the club record of 11 consecutive victories if they triumph at Bolton today.

Bryan Robson, the Albion manager, could have no complaints about the defeat and did not offer any. "But I was delighted with our character," he said.

"We would have really struggled last season after conceding that goal but not now. Liverpool deserved it, and in Steven Gerrard they have one of the best midfielders in the world, if not the best."