Wigan Athletic 0 Liverpool 1: Fowler promises fix for Liverpool's blunt front line

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The Independent Online

Geography and the first of two successive home games against their most illustrious neighbours attracted a record attendance to Wigan, but for those enticed to the JJB Stadium by the macabre prospect of witnessing a once outstanding forward in decline, Liverpool did not disappoint.

Minutes after the final whistle Dave Whelan, Wigan's forthright chairman, marched out of the players' tunnel and summoned a groundsman for an explanation into a pitch as dishevelled as the contest it had staged. Behind them Robbie Fowler, the last player to leave Liverpool's customary warm-down, was submerged beneath a throng of autograph hunters thrilled by the touches of excellence their rediscovered hero had produced on his first start for the club in over four years. No one asked for the signature of Fernando Morientes, who passed by.

The former Real Madrid forward had delivered a performance so lacking in pace, strength and control it was saddening to see. With Djibril Cissé's late cameo illustrating why Rafael Benitez has so little faith in the £14m striker, Peter Crouch injured and their match-winning goal conjured by two centre-halves, the olive branch offered to Fowler appears increasingly astute as Liverpool enter a defining period of their season.

As in his previous league start for Liverpool, the 30-year-old was substituted with his club protecting a one-goal lead. Unlike Sunderland in November 2001, when he was sacrificed as caretaker manager Phil Thompson reacted to Dietmar Hamann's dismissal, his withdrawal was to protect his own physical condition following a 66-minute display of accuracy and invention that Benitez has so far lacked from his strikers' union this season.

Liverpool entertain Arsenal in their Premiership game in hand on Manchester United tomorrow, and though Fowler is ineligible for Saturday's FA Cup fifth round tie with Sir Alex Ferguson's men he can expect to return for the Champions' League date with Benfica in Lisbon next Tuesday.

"It's been a long, long time since I started a game for Liverpool but I felt I contributed and hopefully I didn't let anyone down," said the striker, who has to impress Benitez to earn a contract extension this summer. "I am confident in what I can do and though it is all down to the manager I feel I am on the right track."

With the striker's best work reserved for outside the penalty area it required the impressive Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia to give Liverpool a clinical edge, the Finnish international volleying his colleague's hooked pass beyond Mike Pollitt on the half hour after Wigan failed to clear a Steven Gerrard free-kick.

The offensive problems faced by Benitez, however, paled alongside those of his Wigan counterpart Paul Jewell. Denied Jason Roberts through suspension, Neil Mellor by the loan rule and David Connolly through injury, Jewell was less than enamoured to discover Henri Camara had failed to arrive back from African Nations' Cup duty in time to take his place among the substitutes.

Jewell's lack of options were exposed when, with Wigan urgently requiring a presence to convert one of Gary Teale's crosses in the second half, he could only introduce Leighton Baines at left-back into the fray in the 84th minute.

Jewell said: "I have to be careful what I say in case I say something I would regret [about Camara]. I only want to talk about the players who were here and who gave their all."

Goals: Hyypia (30) 0-1.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Pollitt; Jackson, Henchoz, De Zeeuw, Ziegler; Teale, Kavanagh, Bullard, Thompson; Johansson (Baines, 84), Scharner. Substitutes not used: Filan (gk), Francis, Mahon, Joyce.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard, Hamann, Alonso, Kewell; Fowler (Kromkamp, 66), Morientes (Cissé, 71). Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Sissoko, Traoré.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Wigan Thompson, Henchoz.

Man of the match: Carragher.

Attendance: 25,023.

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