Owen rediscovers touch to silence critics

Liverpool 3 Portsmouth 0
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The Independent Online

Michael Owen should be careful what he wishes for. On Sunday evening in the wake of a missed penalty at Southampton the striker reflected that he would not have minded had the season ended then.

Michael Owen should be careful what he wishes for. On Sunday evening in the wake of a missed penalty at Southampton the striker reflected that he would not have minded had the season ended then.

Since that would have left Liverpool eighth and Owen in the midst of a crisis of confidence it is just as well the campaign continued. Having seen their team bus stoned outside Goodison Park at the weekend, Portsmouth returned to Merseyside still troubled by round objects flung, not from the fists of Everton youths, but from Owen's boots and head which between them provided two goals and one assist. Liverpool's domination was total and had Danny Murphy and Emile Heskey not struck the post, Portsmouth might have been completely humiliated.

"I am pleased when my team shows intent right away," Gérard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, said. "They know what the job is and where they have to be. Tonight, even the misses were quality."

Tommy Smith, one of the array of former players whose chorusing from the sidelines has driven Houllier to distraction, suggested that Owen's confidence had cracked to such a degree that he should have been dropped for this game. It was a reasonable suggestion but a Portsmouth defence lacking pace, positioning and poise was more of a rest cure than any run in the reserves.

Flung out of position at left-back and faced by Owen and Steven Gerrard, nobody suffered quite as badly as Dejan Stefanovic, who did manage to strike the crossbar shortly into the second half, but from high in midfield to deep in their own area Portsmouth did not begin to cope. Even Igor Biscan was selling dummies to defenders on the edge of the box.

Like another centre-forward, Alan Shearer, Owen is a surprisingly good crosser of a ball and in the sixth minute he sent over a ball that Dietmar Hamann met with the kind of ruthless, crashing volley at which he excels. Shaka Hislop, who throughout the evening made exceptional saves in the Portsmouth goal, barely moved before the ball struck the net.

Being a mere provider would not, however, have been enough for Owen, who before yesterday had managed one League goal since 25 October. Portsmouth did not react quickly enough to Jamie Carragher's cross, perhaps deceived by Heskey's dummy, and Owen, with time to spare, put the match beyond their realistic reach.

Despite a spirited recovery in the early stages of the second half, Portsmouth were finished off as early as the 58th minute when Owen displayed the energised leap which shows a man in form, meeting Gerrard's corner with a header that once more left Hislop a spectator.

After that Owen was forever driving forward, in search of the third, alive to all the possibilities the game offered. For his own piece of mind, and Houllier's this will be some comfort, but with the opening game of the European Championship visible on the horizon, it will be a relief to Sven Goran Eriksson, too.

For both Houllier and his counterpart, Harry Redknapp, the fixture lists are glanced at as a sailor, convinced his ship will sink, examines his lifejacket. For the Liverpool manager, this was the first of four matches against clubs in the bottom five, although not all will be as wretched as Portsmouth.

Redknapp calculated that he needs 15 points from the final 10 games of the season if Portsmouth are to enjoy successive seasons in the top-flight for the first time since Harold Macmillan was running the country. Fortunately six of those matches are at Fratton Park, where they boast the same home record that Liverpool had coming into last night's game.

Outside the havens of the south coast, Portsmouth have suffered the kind of results Southport might expect should they materialise in the Premiership: four points from 15 fixtures, the last of those on 6 December. They had not won at Anfield since Bob Paisley's day, which given the fact that Pompey have not exactly been regular members of the top-flight does not sound too bad until you realise that this was in 1951 when Paisley was a Liverpool player.

Liverpool: (4-1-3-2) Dudek 4; Carragher 7, Biscan 6, Hyypia 5, Riise 6; Hamann 6; Murphy 6, Gerrard 7 (Cheyrou 5, 74), Kewell 5 (Diouf 80); Heskey 5, Owen 8. Substitutes not used: Luzi (gk), Henchoz, Baros.

Portsmouth: (4-4-2) Hislop 6; Curtis 5, Primus 4, De Zeeuw 4, Stefanovic 3; Smertin 3 (Stone 6, ht), Faye 5, Hughes 4, Mornar 5; LuaLua 5, Todorov 3 (Taylor 4, ht). Substitutes not used: Wapenaar (gk), Sheringham, Pasanen.

Referee: B Knight (Orpington) 6.

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