Owen returns to Anfield with steel in his heart

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The Independent Online

The memories will stir again as the coach snakes its way through the city streets at lunchtime today, as he passes under the "This Is Anfield" sign, sharing a joke with Jamie Carragher along the way, and then, as he emerges in front of the towering Centenary Stand, it will hit him. Life is not how it used to be.

Fighting against his natural instincts Owen will turn left, not right, when he steps foot on to the Anfield turf for the first time in 16 months to leave his back turned symbolically against The Kop while he acknowledges the adoration of the Newcastle faithful. "I will cross that bridge when I come to it," said Owen, when asked how he would feel on his debut as an opponent of Liverpool, and for once this consummate professional, this cold-blooded predator, will run a gamut of emotions when the crossing arrives at 3pm this afternoon.

But for one significant step in the opposite direction back in August the 26-year-old would have been facing Graeme Souness' Newcastle today, a sobering thought for the club against whom he plundered 14 goals in 11 appearances before joining Real Madrid in August 2004 for £8m, a sobering price tag for the club who had allowed the striker to enter the final year of his contract and were then outmanoeuvred by the opportunist Spaniards in the transfer market.

Liverpool were backed into a corner once again this summer when Owen, his passion for the game dimmed by a season on the bench at the Bernabeu yet one that netted 14 goals none the less, pleaded for a return to the club he joined as an 11-year-old schoolboy fresh from breaking Ian Rush's goalscoring records for Deeside Schools. This time, however, it was not the Madrid president, Florentino Perez, who had them flailing, but Freddy Shepherd, the Newcastle chairman, whose cheque for £16.5m blew the European champions out of the market for the European Footballer of the Year 2001. "I was gutted when he didn't come back," his close friend Carragher revealed. "But I can understand why. It would have been daft to pay twice as much as we got for him 12 months later."

Today's game should close the circle as far as Newcastle are concerned, with Owen and Liverpool afforded the chance to pay their respects to each other before witnessing at first hand how the other has moved on. Yet that was always a forlorn hope.

Rafael Benitez may have added to the sense of intrigue around this fixture, or for those at St James' Park, the intense irritation, by confirming on Friday that the door was still open for Owen to return to Anfield but, as both clubs are aware, he was merely stating the obvious. Circumstance and Shepherd's boldness conspired against Liverpool in August when the striker, mindful of what further frustration in Madrid would mean for his World Cup place, refused Benitez's request to reject Newcastle publicly and force the Spanish to lower their demands. Should his new club end this season adrift of the European places, however, then Liverpool, with get-out clauses in Owen's contract to exploit, will try again.

The onus is therefore on Newcastle to silence the tumultuous reception that Owen will receive at Anfield today with a performance of intent, and follow it with a season of belated success.

So far the various arguments that raged on Tyneside and Merseyside as Owen pondered his future in Madrid have all, bizarrely, been vindicated. The desperation of Shepherd for a player who could revive an erratic team at St James' has been sated by a return of seven goals in eight games, the finest ratio of Owen's remarkable career.

Newcastle have taken 19 points from those eight fixtures and only six from the 27 that have been available without him through injury. "I didn't think signing Michael was ever going to be a gamble," insists Alan Shearer. "With him, you're just about guaranteed goals. That is why the chairman was prepared to go that high with his bid. If we have Michael in our side we are a much better team. He's such a special goalscorer in terms of his pace and prowess in front of goal. He makes us a much better team. I think that would apply to any team he was at - including Liverpool. He would improve any team he was playing in."

At Liverpool the initial trials of Peter Crouch et al strengthened calls for a genuine goalscorer to turn on-going improvement under Benitez into a convincing shot at the title, although that progress alone has strengthened the belief that their manager, just as he did at Valencia, can work wonders without one.

One guarantee at Anfield today is that, should Owen score against his former club, he will not be consumed by regret.

"I remember a conversation with Jamie Carragher a while back when we saw a player looking downcast after scoring against his old club," the striker revealed; "I don't think either of us could understand that and, if I score, I will celebrate as joyfully as I did at West Ham."

As everyone will at Newcastle, for every goal and every victory they witness between now and May will impinge on the future of their No 10.

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