Owen's flourish masks lapses of frail Liverpool

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The Independent Football

Slovan Liberec 2 Liverpool 3 Liverpool win 4-2 on agg.

Slovan Liberec 2 Liverpool 3 Liverpool win 4-2 on agg.

Michael Owen's anguish at three weeks on the sidelines following two brain scans was swept away when the England striker scored with his first touch to settle this Uefa Cup second-round tie for Liverpool.

The Anfield men, leading 1-0 from the first leg, had toiled to overcome Liberec, and it was not until Emile Heskey put them 2-1 ahead on the night after 75 minutes that Liverpool could breathe more easily.

Owen clinched a place in the last 32 with a fine goal seconds after coming on as substitute, and although Liberec scored a second goal through their late substitute David Breda, Gérard Houllier's side eventually moved comfortably into the next round. But they had never looked entirely convincing.

The Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, was delighted with his decision to give Owen some late action, and said: "Michael made a tremendous contribution." But he added: "It was bad defending for their early goal. We knew they were good on crossing and we were not well positioned to challenge the cross."

Liverpool had brought back Steven Gerrard, Nick Barmby and Robbie Fowler - all called up for England yesterday - from the side who lost 4-3 at Leeds on Saturday. But Liberec took the lead after nine minutes to cancel out their first-leg deficit. A Roman Jun cross from the left was met by Jiri Stajner, who raced into the box unmarked and headed just inside the far post.

The severe treatment being meted out to Heskey finally paid dividends for Liverpool on 30 minutes. Josef Lexa clattered into the big striker yet again out on the left, and Christian Ziege's flighted free-kick was superbly tucked away by Barmby, who equalised with a low header just inside the far post.

Heskey was a constant handful and hit the post with a header from Jamie Carragher's cross a minute from the break. A minute into the second half Heskey lashed a shot that Zbynek Hauzr brilliantly tipped over the bar. But Heskey's toil was rewarded after 75 minutes when he forced home a Vladimir Smicer cross.

Owen came on for Dietmar Hamann after 82 minutes and within seconds he had collected a throw to turn and fire past Hauzr - albeit with the aid of a deflection.

Liberec brought on Breda for Ratislav Michalik on 84 minutes, and he emulated Owen's introduction by scoring 60 seconds later.

Slovan Liberec: Hauzr; Capek, Michalik (Breda, 84), Lexa, Stajner, Lazzaro (Kozuch, 73), Jun (Nezmar, 80), Johana, Janu, Neumann, Pilny. Substitutes not used: Barta (gk), Bakes, Zabojnik, Vidlicka.

Liverpool: Westerveld; Carragher (Murphy, 55), Babbel, Hyypia, Ziege, Smicer, Hamann (Owen, 82), Gerrard, Barmby, Heskey, Fowler (McAllister, 63). Substitutes not used: Arphexad (gk), Song, Henchoz, Traoré.

Referee: E Steinborn (Germany).