Wheels come off the Heskey-Owen tandem

Alex Hayes
Sunday 23 March 2003 01:00
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What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Gérard Houllier returned to the Liverpool bench to witness one of the club's greatest European nights, against the mighty Roma. On Thursday, the Frenchman was treated to a performance to forget.

The onlooking England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, will have been equally concerned by what he saw during the 2-0 Uefa Cup defeat by Celtic. A year ago, his Reds were unstoppable as they helped inspire the 2-0 win over the then Italian champions. Today, Steven Gerrard may have rediscovered some of his old form and Danny Murphy is as willing as ever, but the strike force are a shadow of their former selves. Not as individuals – Emile Heskey is regaining some of his lost confidence by playing up front rather than on the left, while Michael Owen has found the net in five of his last seven matches – but as a partnership.

Eriksson has had his doubts for some time, and having now watched his first-choice strikers struggle to impose themselves against the strong but technically limited Bobo Balde, the dogged but slow Joos Valgaeren and the experienced but injury-prone Johan Mjallby, the England manager must be wondering how they will fare during the upcoming Euro 2004 qualifiers. Liechtenstein should pose no serious problems, even on their home patch, but the subsequent visit of the Turks could prove far more tricky four days later.

The Swede Mjallby has faced the England duo three times in the last eight months, and is yet to be on the losing side. "Emile's very physical and good in the air, while Michael's very pacy," says the 32-year-old, who played against them with Sweden at last summer's World Cup and then twice with Celtic during the Uefa Cup quarter-final.

"They have all the right tools to be the perfect match, but they can be kept at bay. The key is communication, because one of the defenders needs to step up and get close to whoever is about the receive the ball. It's not just as easy as that, but not giving either any space is definitely the key to winning the battle."

Something tells you the Turkish back-line, with the likes of Aston Villa's Alpay, Galatasaray's Bulent Korkmaz and Fenerbahce's Fatih Akyel, stand a good chance of keeping Owen and Heskey at bay, too. "The Turks will have to concentrate, particularly against Owen," Mjallby adds, "but if their midfielders can close down the two England wide players, then the job will be made easier, because neither Owen nor Heskey are brilliant when the ball comes long from the midfield."

That the Owen-Heskey tandem is no longer rolling along smoothly was confirmed by Eriksson at the beginning of the week, when he admitted that he would have welcomed Alan Shearer's return to the international fold. Something about the Liverpool partnership is not quite right.

Heskey has never been a prodigious scorer (he found the net 40 times in 143 appear-ances for Leicester, and has added 31 in 88 games since joining Liverpool three years ago) but he did prove an admirable foil for Owen during his first two trophy-laden seasons at the club, and was strong when helping England claw back from near-certain elimination to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

Those days, though, are long gone. Heskey continues to battle up front, but no longer scares opponents in the way he used to. Defenders have worked out that if you stay close to the big striker and force him to play with his back to goal, then you will nullify his threat.

Owen, too, has been found out since he burst into our consciousness back in 1998. He is still impossible to catch when in full flight, but can be kept relatively quiet if shackled away from the penalty area. Just look at the way Celtic's workmanlike back-three limited the England strikers to a couple of half-chances.

Over the course of the tie, Celtic had the better combination up front. Henrik Larsson's abilities are well-known, but the Welsh powerhouse, John Hartson, gave the perfect lesson in how to play as the target man. Chris Sutton was equally instrumental during the first leg at Parkhead, but would almost certainly have been overlooked by Eriksson even if he were not injured.

Another English player who will miss out is the left-footed scorer of Celtic's all-important first goal on Thursday night. "I really don't give England a moment's thought any more," Alan Thompson says. "I've been playing really well this season, but it makes little difference. Look at Chris [Sutton], he's been wonderful for three years but doesn't get a mention. With England, the same players always seem to get the nod." Perhaps not for much longer.

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