Owen out in the cold as Benitez eyes Morientes

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The Independent Online

Never has a teamsheet been scoured so eagerly. Michael Owen was last night omitted from the starting line-up for Liverpool's Champions' League qualifier against AK Graz ­ which they won 2-0 with impressive ease ­ as the end of his 13-year association with the Anfield club drew closer.

Never has a teamsheet been scoured so eagerly. Michael Owen was last night omitted from the starting line-up for Liverpool's Champions' League qualifier against AK Graz ­ which they won 2-0 with impressive ease ­ as the end of his 13-year association with the Anfield club drew closer.

Asked about his decision not to select Owen or to bring him off the bench in Austria, the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, said: "When I decide the XI to start, it is because I have confidence in the players. We have four good forwards, and I picked two of them."

When it was suggested to him that Liverpool fans would now expect Owen to leave the club he responded: "We'll see." Asked specifically whether he would like Owen to stay, he said cryptically: "I like always the best, the good players."

Negotiations are under way for Owen to move to Real Madrid which could involve either a straight £20m cash bid or, as is more likely, £10m plus a player. Benitez is understood to be keen to sign the Real striker Fernando Morientes who he tried to secure when he was Valencia coach.

Steven Gerrard, who scored twice to ease Liverpool's path to the group stages last night, was as vague as his manager about Owen's future. "I'm not sure what's going to happen with Michael," he said. "No one has said anything to me, so as far as I'm concerned, he's still a Liverpool player."

The decision not to use Owen amounted to a calculated risk by Benitez, who knew that if he fielded the 24-year-old at any stage he would be cup-tied and any deal to sell him would fall through. However, if Liverpool's 2-0 lead is overturned it would cost them £16m in lost revenue ­ far more damaging than losing the transfer cash for Owen. Benitez chose to use Salif Diao, Darren Potter and Stephen Warnock as his three replacements instead. Leaving Owen on the bench was also a typically defiant gesture by Benitez.

Barcelona have also expressed an interest in Owen although it is understood he would prefer to move to Real ­ even though they have two "undroppable" strikers in Raul and Ronaldo and the coach Jose Antonio Camacho has said he does not want any more strikers.

If Morientes, who has been in good pre-season form, is omitted from Real's squad for their match against Wisla Krakow tonight it would indicate that he is also likely to move. Camacho had stated that he intended to use Morientes who, while on loan last season, led Monaco to the European Cup final.

It is possible that there is still a certain amount of brinksmanship over Owen's future and even though he was left out last night a highly-placed Anfield source said that he still believed he might stay. Owen and his advisers, SFX, have prevaricated over an extension to his contract and, it is understood, Benitez has grown weary of the negotiations.

Last weekend Liverpool gave Owen an ultimatum and this has reactivated interest from other clubs. Owen has 10 months left on his deal and has already refused to sign a new four-year contract although Liverpool quickly offered to compromise with a two-year extension, with a substantial increase to his £60,000-a-week salary.

The club has painted itself into a corner by allowing Owen to run down his contract and although he has maintained he will not leave on a free transfer next summer, he remains in a strong bargaining position if the interest from Real is real. Owen's father, Terry, did not travel to Austria on Monday ­ he usually attends Liverpool's away games in Europe ­ and is understood to have flown to Spain instead with his son's agent Tony Stephens and other representatives from SFX.

To complicate matters further, and if Morientes is not released, Liverpool would be interested in taking Samuel Eto'o in part-exchange for Owen. The Cameroon striker, who plays for Real Mallorca, is partly owned by Real Madrid. Barcelona have agreed terms with Eto'o, and were yesterday trying to push that deal through, but Real Madrid are keen for him not to play for another Spanish club. A move to Liverpool would suit them.

The links between the two clubs go further still. Just as Liverpool were finalising the £2.5m sale of Danny Murphy to Charlton Athletic, they had a near £11m bid for the Real Sociedad midfielder Xabi Alonso rejected. Alonso has also been a target for Real Madrid, who have also had a bid rejected, and he would prefer to stay in Spain. Alonso is seen as an alternative to Patrick Vieira if, unexpectedly, that deal does not go through. But Vieira is expected to sign when Real return from Poland tomorrow.

In refusing Liverpool's bid, Sociedad confirmed that Alonso was for sale. "Liverpool representatives have been in San Sebastian where they met Real Sociedad executives," the club said. "Liverpool showed their interest in signing the player and the Spanish club expressed an interest in selling."

Liverpool's offer for Alonso is not thought to fall too far short of the Spanish club's valuation.

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