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Owen's contract threat casts shadow over Anfield

LIVERPOOL reacted indignantly last night 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 Shoot magazine in September which implied that he was delivering a "success or else" ultimatum to his employers.

The timing irritated Liverpool's hierarchy as it followed the progressive announcement that Steven Gerrard, their new captain and as big an influence at the club as Owen, had signed an extension to his contract to run until 2007.

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.

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 £25m 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.

Owen this season broke Ian Rush's long-standing club record of 20 European goals and is regarded by Rush as a certainty to set a cluster of other records.

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 Owen quotation that stirred the trouble for Liverpool was: "I really have to be playing in the Champions League and that is something we have to remedy," but other extracts from that article give a more balanced view from the striker, who recently moved into his new family home on the North Wales border.

Further comments attributed to him in the article were: "It is impossible to say about my future at Liverpool. If they are winning the League every year, there will not be any decision to make about playing abroad.

"I have moved into a new house and my family are close by. I have lived there all my life and you just don't jump up and go.

"I am happy at the moment and if we have a successful team I will always be happy. Foreign players are all up for moving over here and I don't blame them. We've got such an exciting league and the lifestyle is good."

While Owen misses Sunday's friendly against Denmark, Rooney has been declared fit enough to join up with the rest of the England squad.

Rooney missed his club Everton's game against Blackburn on Monday due to 'flu, but doctors from his club and the England camp have agreed he can travel to Manchester for the Denmark game.

"Wayne will now join up with the squad when they assemble in Manchester tomorrow and we are hopeful that he will be able to take part in Sunday's match at Old Trafford," an FA spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Craig Bellamy, the Newcastle United and Wales striker, has been read the riot act by his club chairman, Freddy Shepherd, in a meeting at St James' Park.

Bellamy sparked a bitter war of words between his club and country after returning injured from international duty in October for the third time in seven months and Newcastle threatened legal action in an effort to gain compensation.

Bellamy, who has also been in hot water with Shepherd for his off-the-field brushes with the law, has not played since Wales' defeat by Serbia last month and is ruled out until February following further knee surgery.

Bellamy was left in little doubt as to just how angry Shepherd is that Newcastle have been left to pick up hefty medical bills.

Newcastle have missed Bellamy this season, as they have been dumped out of the Champions League and Carling Cup, and are struggling in the Premiership.

Bellamy left the ground grim-faced after his ear-bashing and the player's agent refused to comment. © Daily Telegraph and other agencies