Setback delays Owen's return until new year

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The Independent Football

Michael Owen will not return to the first team until the new year as he struggles to overcome a thigh injury.

The news, announced yesterday, that the England striker will miss the entire Christmas programme is a blow to the Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, who is facing mounting criticism after his side slipped to ninth place in the Premiership following a 2-1 home defeat to Southampton on Saturday.

Talk at Anfield last week had been of Owen possibly returning this weekend for the game against Wolves but he has suffered another setback.

Owen last played in the Uefa Cup second round, second leg victory over Steaua Bucharest at Anfield on 27 November but limped off a minute from time with the thigh injury. He has played only five times since 4 October.

There was better news for Bolton as their manager, Sam Allardyce, spoke of his relief at having Jay-Jay Okocha available for the festive period.

Allardyce feared that he would have to give his captain up on Friday to attend a training camp in Portugal ahead of the African Nations Cup. But now Okocha, as well as other England-based players, can delay their departure until 9 January.

It means the talented midfielder will be able to face Arsenal on Saturday, then Liverpool and Leicester leading up to the new year. He will travel to Nigeria's second training camp in Tunisia on the weekend after the Manchester United match on 7 January.

Allardyce said: "The Nigerian FA have looked at the position and looked at the amount of time they were going to take the players away at such a crucial period. They have been more lenient - and to be perfectly honest they've had to be.

"They couldn't really demand that time and they couldn't really go to Fifa and say they wanted the players. It was far too much time before a tournament. The Nigerians have eased back and my understanding is he will miss the European camp and leave around 9 January."

Okocha was set to play his last match for some time in the Carling Cup quarter-final against Southampton tonight. But now Allardyce hopes to celebrate the reprieve by taking another step towards the Millennium Stadium.

Southampton's leading scorer, James Beattie, and the defender Claus Lundekvam are both doubtful for the tie. Beattie is struggling to recover from an ankle injury while Lundekvam, who has not missed a game all season, limped out of last Saturday's win at Liverpool with a similar problem.