Liverpool are still interested in re-signing Owen, says Benitez

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The Independent Online

The prodigal son is not expected "home" until Boxing Day but Liverpool rolled out the red carpet early for Michael Owen yesterday when their manager, Rafael Benitez, admitted he still harboured hopes of enticing the England international back into the Anfield fold.

Liverpool's interest in their former protégé will come as no surprise to Newcastle United chairman Freddy Shepherd, who needed to offer Real Madrid a club record £16.5m to drive the European champions out of the market for Owen in August and was prepared for renewed speculation on the striker's future at the end of this season. However, Benitez's public admission will advance the uncertainty on Tyneside and, at the very least, provide the Newcastle manager, Graeme Souness, with an unwanted distraction ahead of Monday's meeting between the two clubs on Merseyside.

Benitez was portrayed as an unwilling participant in Liverpool's pursuit of the then Madrid forward this summer, while the impressive strides made by his team since have strengthened the argument that Owen would not suit his tactical approach. Yet the Spaniard yesterday insisted that the 26-year-old would flourish in the system that delivered the Champions' League to Anfield, and that he would welcome the return of the striker who scored 158 goals in 297 appearances for Liverpool.

The Liverpool manager said: "I explained my ideas to him and he knew that it would have been possible for him to play here. When you go for a player you need to know what characteristics he has and whether you can use him. We knew we could use Michael at Liverpool, he is a player who could play in any team." Benitez was then asked if Owen could return to Anfield in the future. "Sure, why not?" he responded. "He is a good player and good players are always interesting to other clubs."

Owen signed a four-year contract at St James' Park in August after Madrid refused to countenance Liverpool's offer of a one-year loan deal followed by a permanent £8m move next summer, the fee they paid for Owen in the summer of 2004.

However, the deal contains several get-out clauses, including such conditions as Newcastle's final Premiership position, qualification for Europe and a reduced release fee, and Liverpool will develop their interest if a clause is activated at the end of this season.

"There were several reasons why it didn't happen in the summer: the price, the time, the decision of Michael and the fact that we already had good strikers at the club. All of these things together made it impossible to change the situation in such a short space of time," said Benitez, who urged Owen to reject Newcastle outright in August and thereby test Madrid's resolve, only for the striker to decide that he could not afford to take that risk 48 hours before the transfer deadline.

The Liverpool manager added: "We tried until the very end to sign him, but he decided to go to Newcastle because he wanted to play every week. I respected that decision fully, but because Real Madrid had such a big offer on the table it was impossible for us to sign him at that high price."

Owen lives in the north Wales home he purchased as a Liverpool player and commutes to training in the North-east on a daily basis, though his Newcastle strike partner, Alan Shearer, insists his current employers have no reason to doubt his long-term ambitions.

"I'm not selling the club to him any more. I don't think I have to - the tough part was getting him here," said Shearer, who requires just one more goal to equal Jackie Milburn's record of 200 for Newcastle. "We all said that, if we were to get him here, he would take to the football club, the area and the people. I think he's done that. The people have certainly taken to him - not only on the football pitch, but off it as well. They've made him feel very welcome and he's grateful for that. He likes the area, which I think is a big plus."

Souness added: "Michael is an honest man and Liverpool was his first choice, but it wasn't to be and I would like to think that he will want to go back there and show them what they are missing and, hopefully, that will mean goals for us."