17.12.03

Houllier faces Owen puzzle



Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier may need to trust to luck to spark an Anfield revival - sadly all of his luck is currently bad.

Houllier arrived at his desk at Liverpool's plush Melwood training headquarters on Monday looking for silver linings in the clouds over Anfield after the damaging home defeat against Southampton. Sadly for Houllier, he swiftly discovered the worst news of all when a medical bulletin revealed Michael Owen had suffered a recurrence of a torn thigh muscle and could be sidelined for another month.

Houllier has been at pains to point out that Liverpool's season will kick into gear with the return of key injured players such as England striker Owen and new signing Harry Kewell. So the revelation that Owen will miss the crucial festive period and the banana skin FA Cup tie at Yeovil will come as a devastating blow.

Liverpool have played eight games without Owen this season and won only three - it is a simple equation that equals trouble ahead. And the formula gets worse if Owen is ruled out for such a lengthy period that Liverpool fall out of Champions League contention, a situation that may even force the striker to review his own Anfield future.

Owen's speed is Liverpool's most devastating weapon, giving them a pace and cutting edge no-one else in Houllier's squad comes close to providing. And when Houllier runs the rule over the rest of his strike force, his mood is unlikely to lighten.

Owen's absence is underscored even further not just by the current absence of Kewell, but also Milan Baros, who was in potent form before suffering a serious ankle injury at Blackburn in September.

So who is left to pick up the baton reluctantly put down by Owen?

Emile Heskey



No laughing at the back. Heskey is the striker who does not strike. The goalscorer who does not score goals. Houllier had effectively decided that Heskey was an Anfield back-number until injuries to Owen and Baros left him little alternative but to recall the England forward. Sadly, Heskey reacts to weighty responsibility like Superman confronted by Kryptonite, shrinking at the very sight of it. Heskey is regarded as an underachiever, a slightly glossy tag that rather overplays his supposed previous achievements. He has been given trust and faith by Houllier. If ever he needs to repay that it is now, but no-one at Liverpool can hold their breath that long.

El-Hadji Diouf

Senegal international Diouf also publicly flouts his description as a striker on a weekly basis. He is full of tricks, but usually only succeeds in fooling himself, not the Anfield public. His best trick recently has been to disappear when Houllier needed him most. Diouf's only excuse is that he has spent most of his Liverpool career playing on the wing, but he is still a misfit.

Vladimir Smicer

The great Liverpool enigma. A potent force for an emerging Czech Republic side and yet a wasted talent at Anfield. There were suggestions that Smicer exchanged angry words with a disgruntled member of the Anfield crowd against Southampton. If this was true, it was a rare show of aggressive intent from a gifted player who too often appears to shy away from the Premiership's physical rigours. Unreliable when the chips are down.

Florent Sinama-Pongolle

Now here might be Houllier's best hope. A French youngster clearly unafraid of the big stage and blessed with blistering pace. Sinama-Pongolle has troubled every defence he has played against, forcing a succession of rash challenges and possessing a lightning turn of foot. Houllier may be reluctant to risk the 19-year-old in such trying circumstance, but fortune favours the brave and this potentially dazzling youngster cannot do worse than Heskey, Diouf or Smicer.

It is a puzzle Houllier has to solve and fast to paper over the cracks until Owen is fit enough to bring his brilliance back to the Liverpool team.

Culled from BBC Sport Website

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