Owen sweetly rises above the sour exchanges

Blackburn Rovers 1 Liverpool 3
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The Independent Online

Michael Owen says a top-four finish in the Premiership is a "bare minimum" for Liverpool this season and no one can accuse him of not doing his bit. Two goals yesterday - one from a penalty - took his tally to five this season, more than 70 per cent of his team's total.

Quite where that would put Gérard Houllier's team without the England striker is anyone's guess, but for the moment that is not a problem Liverpool have to face.

Believe it or not, yesterday was one of his profligate days. He scored twice and would have got five if he had taken his other relatively simple opportunities. Three times he was one-on-one against his former team-mate Brad Friedel and the Blackburn goalkeeper denied him with a series of outstanding saves.

"If Michael had been clinical we would have had six," Houllier said without a trace of criticism. "I said to Brad he kept them in the game for a long time. We deserved to win. We played well." A churlish review would point to Blackburn having to play with 10 men for 77 minutes thanks to Lucas Neill's dismissal, but you could hardly argue with the Liverpool manager. Which is precisely what Graeme Souness was doing for much of a match that began with a volcanic 15 minutes and simmered along nicely after that. "We exchanged views," was all Houllier, who was incensed by the challenges of another of his former charges, David Thompson, would say.

Such was the combustible nature of the opening that Barry Ferguson, making an impressive Blackburn debut after a £6m move from Rangers, could have been forgiven for thinking he had strayed into an Old Firm derby. Within two minutes a crunching, but legitimate, tackle by Markus Babbel (on a season-long loan from Anfield) forced Milan Baros out of the game and when Matt Jansen opened the scoring in the ninth minute, the omens looked bleak for Liverpool.

Ferguson began the move with a quick flick to the left flank and, when Andy Cole headed on a long pass, Jansen flicked the ball over Jamie Carragher, cut back inside the fullback with his next touch and then drilled a left-foot drive past Jerzy Dudek.

Plan A was in tatters for Houllier, but Plan B brought instant results as Liverpool equalised within four minutes. El Hadji Diouf, haring down the right, twisted Vratislav Gresko inside out and the Slovakian full-back clumsily brought him down. Friedel guessed right with Owen's penalty, but the shot was true and it beat his dive to the left.

Gresko's attempted tackle had proved costly and the next significant one from a Blackburn player proved equally so when Neill appeared to jump in on Carragher. The Liverpool players were furious and Neill saw red, too: the referee sent him off instantly.

"That changed the game," said Souness, who did not dispute the dismissal. "They used their extra man well." It was Owen, menacing the home back four, who appeared to be the extra man in question and for much of the game it was a matter of whether his or Friedel's excellence would be decisive.

In the end it was Owen who prevailed, although the Blackburn goalkeeper did his utmost with a string of blocks and saves. Even he could do nothing, however, after 68 minutes when Steven Gerrard's fine long ball reached Vladimir Smicer, who slipped over and still kept possession. When the pass came to Owen, he was 15 yards out with time to spare. Needless to say, he shot low into the far corner.

That, as Souness admitted, sealed the game and it was the icing rather than a more fundamental ingredient when Kewell added Liverpool's third with a sharp drive from the edge of the area.

"It was a sour victory," said Houllier, who has lost two of his key players for the foreseeable future. Baros has a broken ankle and Carragher will have a scan today.

Blackburn Rovers 1
Jansen 8

Liverpool 3
Owen pen 12, 68, Kewell 90

Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 30,074

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