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Healed Owen reflects on hamstrung Liverpool

The problem with Michael Owen’s hamstrings had always been their liability to break down at crucial stages in Liverpool’s season. But after a year of strengthening and sacrifice, the England striker has found himself on the other end of a Faustian pact: the hamstrings are fine but it is his club that have proved more likely to break down.

Owen playing England friendlies in May was once a demand that his brittle hamstrings would just not accept.

But now that he finds himself killing the empty time between Thursday’s match against South Africa and the Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia on June 11, he has had time to reflect on Liverpool’s slump to fifth place in the Premiership table and their failure to qualify for the Champions League.

The intense muscle work that Owen has done to fortify his hamstrings has always come with the risk, he has warned, that his goalscoring this season will be curtailed by sheer fatigue.

Curtailed, as it turned out, to a mere 28 goals which can hardly be judged as a meagre return for a 23-year-old who spends 90 minutes more on every training session than his teammates.

“It’s not been the greatest season in the Premiership or the Champions League,” Owen said. “We won the Worthington Cup but we set out sights much higher than that so it has been a disappointing season. Hopefully it will get better next year. From a personal point of view it started average and got better.

“I got 28 goals for Liverpool and that equals the best I have done but the main thing for me this season was to solve my injury problems.

“I’ve missed two games through hamstring problems which is probably better for me than any of those 28 goals. The things I have done off the pitch means that I was always going to have a patchy season.”

He added: “I really felt that I had to add a lot more strength so I could play as many games as possible without getting injured — that has sometimes been at the expense of being 100 per cent sharp. It is an injury problem that you can solve through hard work.”

If Owen has kept his part of the bargain — especially with a late assault on the Golden Boot with 12 in 14 matches — then there is certainly a clear implication that not all his Liverpool teammates have kept theirs.

It also puts the England striker in a mean position to start negotiations for a new deal this summer as well which will replace the existing agreement that is set to run out in two years’ time.

“It’s a really important summer because we never performed to our capabilities this season,” Owen said.

“Whether the players who played have got to improve next year or whether we have to bring new players in remains to be seen. That’s down to the manager but it is certainly a big summer.”

This season has also been a long one for Owen when you consider that he had the burden of two runs without scoring, in September and February as well as the disclosure of his World Cup gambling losses.

As the England squad’s most recent new father may be forgiven for a different tiredness apart from the ache of his hamstrings, and it wa s with rather less passion than David Beckham that he discussed the “optional” team trip to see Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg Wednesday.

“I’m told that Mr Mandela is a big football fan and there is no doubt that the players in the squad are really looking forward to going and meeting him,” Owen said.

With Wayne Rooney missing from the trip it will be yet another England match in which Owen does not start with the same strike partner.

“There’s plenty of time for Wayne because he’s got tons and tons of England caps to look forward to,” Owen said. “There is no point risking him because of his injury and the chance that we can get him back for the next match.”

Rooney is only starting to learn the lesson that Owen was taught some time ago: that not even the most indestructible young striker can force his body to endure every last game.

Owen might not be relishing four days away from his new daughter and fiancé but he does at least have reason to be thankful that it is Sven-Goran Eriksson, rather than his hamstrings, who have decided his availability.

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