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Liverpool reject talk of Owen ultimatum
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Liverpool reacted indignantly on Wednesday to reports that Michael Owen had issued a threat to leave if they fail to qualify for the Champions League next season. Anfield officials insist that the England striker is happy on Merseyside and will eventually sign the new contract on offer to him.

Remarks attributed to Owen were, according to Liverpool, taken out of context from an interview he did for theShoot magazine in September which implied that he was delivering a “success or else” ultimatum to his employers.

The timing irritated Liverpool’s hierarchy because Tuesday should have been a day of celebration with the announcement that Steven Gerrard, their new captain and as big an influence at the club as Owen, had signed an extension to his contract.

Gerrard’s commitment to Liverpool until 2007 was seen as an indication that the England midfielder believes Gerard Houllier’s team will eventually prove themselves as serious rivals to Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea in the battle for honours at home and abroad.

It is reasonable to assume that Gerrard might have hedged his bets a little longer over his new deal if he felt that Owen, prevented by an ankle injury from adding to his 53 appearances and 24 goals for England on Sunday, was about to leave Liverpool.

Signing the two-year extension sends out the message that Gerrard feels qualification for the Champions League is a realistic target for a team Houllier has assembled for £118 million.

With Gerrard’s future secured, Liverpool, who agreed new contracts with Chris Kirkland and Jamie Carragher last month, were all set to work on tying down Owen, whom they have developed from a promising schoolboy into one of the world’s most coveted strikers.

Real Madrid, who enticed England captain David Beckham to the Bernabeu for £25 million last summer, have been linked with an even bigger bid for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s vice-captain, while Barcelona and a cluster of other major continental clubs would react positively to any hint that Owen was for sale.

While Manchester United were willing to offload Beckham, the departure of Owen — who has 18 months remaining on his contract — would send out all the wrong signals about Liverpool’s ambitions and alienate a hitherto sympathetic and patient fan base.

It is crucial, therefore, that Houllier completes this next piece of business some time in the next nine months to prevent Liverpool from becoming vulnerable to the type of pre-contract approach exploited by Madrid to sign Steve McManaman in 1999.

THE DAILY TELERAPH

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