Anfield lament for loss of the wide boys

Owen has every right to be disillusioned with the service

Guy Hodgson
Sunday 09 March 2003 01:00
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Watch a video of the last time Liverpool met Celtic in Glasgow in the Uefa Cup and it is immediately clear the pictures are dated. The shirts, give or take an indulgence by the kit sponsors, are the same, but one player does something no modern inhabitant of Anfield would contemplate as a full-time occupation.

The player is Steve McManaman and instead of rushing inwards as if the centre spot is a magnet, he occasion-ally – and this will astonish younger Liverpool supporters – sticks close to the touchline. Surprisingly, given manager Gérard Houllier's seeming aversion to wingers, the tactic seemed successful.

McManaman scored magnificently that night six years ago, picking up the ball near the halfway line and thumping it in from 25 yards, the pivotal moment in a tie decided by that away goal. But then Liverpool used to invite opponents to feel the width as well as the quality.

No one could accuse Houllier's team of being wide boys now. Their home, hemmed in by terraces, has one of the Premiership's narrowest pitches but that is of little importance to a side who give the impress-ion they would like to play in a bowling alley. The groundsman who keeps the Anfield wings green and unrutted has the easiest job in football.

But if supporters feel nostalgic for the days when John Barnes and McManaman could stretch defences to the edge of destruction, imagine how Michael Owen feels. When he scored his first European goal at Celtic Park that night in 1997, he had every reason to believe that he would have a career feeding on passes from the flank. If he did, he will be disillusioned now because he has to go to church if he wishes to see a cross.

Yesterday was a prime example. Houllier seems genuinely hurt when his team are accused of being boring but it is difficult to detect much spirit of adventure in a formation that left Owen 40 yards apart from his nearest colleague for long periods.

A 4-5-1 line-up might be forgivable at Celtic Park in the Uefa Cup quarter-final this Thursday, but against Bolton, who are struggling to survive in the Premiership, it was safety first, second and last. Put it this way, a United Nations inspection team would not need to look much beyond the No 10 to find Liverpool's weapon of mass destruction.

Even a missile of Owen's velocity needs priming, however, and with El Hadji Diouf and Vladimir Smicer parked by the full-backs, the only way Liver-pool were likely to find him was through the middle, a tactic that the worst coach in the world has cottoned on to by now. Sam Allardyce, Bolton's manager, is far from that and it was no surprise that Owen soon resembled the lonely embodiment of frustration.

Only rarely could he give vent to his pent-up feelings and such is his ability he was a threat each time. In the 38th minute he was so surprised to receive the ball as Bernard Mendy attempted a pass back, he fluffed completely. But six minutes later he slipped by Simon Charlton and curled the ball to the far post for Diouf to head in. Yet the Kop was so unimpressed by the team's performance that they booed the players off the pitch at the interval even though the goal had come just seconds before.

Bolton had to gamble and Owen had more freedom in the second half, darting to the near post after 66 minutes to meet Diouf's pass from the byline. It was Owen's 20th goal of the season but you have to wonder if they have come despite Houllier's tactics.

Owen will be the chief threat to Celtic on Thursday but the Scots can be assured of one thing: no flying winger will dump them out of the Uefa Cup this time.

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