LONDON — It seems remarkable that Michael Owen, who will surely become England’s leading goalscorer at international level soon, is struggling to find himself a club before the transfer window closes next Wednesday.

Christopher Davies

The Real Madrid striker is playing an intriguing game of football poker, Owen calling a bluff with Newcastle revealing its hand and Liverpool keeping its cards close to its chest.

Owen, who left Liverpool for Real Madrid in an £8 million transfer last year, does not want to spend the forthcoming World Cup season on the Bernabeu bench. The arrival of Robinho and Jose Baptista means Owen will be fifth choice up front with galacticos Ronaldo and Raul guaranteed their places.

Newcastle has had a “club record” bid — probably £16 million — for the player accepted by Real, but Owen seems to have no great desire to join one of the most underachieving clubs in English football.

“I said that my ideal situation was to start the season in the Real Madrid first team and if not I would prefer to return to Liverpool,” he said. “The president understood me and said he would try to help me achieve this. If the transfer cannot be finalized in time I have agreed to go to Newcastle, but only on a one-year loan. I need to be playing regularly in a World Cup year.”

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Newcastle or a statement of desire to play for the club.

If Owen does join it on loan the reaction of the fans will be interesting as the player has effectively rejected the club, using it only to ensure match fitness as the World Cup approaches.

Owen is waiting to see if Liverpool makes a move before pursuing any options with Newcastle. It seems that the Liverpool board is keen for Owen to return, though whether they would be willing to pay double what they received for him a year ago seems unlikely.

Manager Rafael Benitez does not appear to share his board’s enthusiasm for Owen because, word has it, the Spaniard was upset that Owen left in the first place and he is not the ideal player to spearhead his favored lone-striker formation.

Despite the departure of Milan Baros to Aston Villa earlier this week, Benitez, who has not categorically ruled out a move for Owen, says a defender and right-winger are his priorities.

Djibril Cisse, Peter Crouch and Fernando Morientes are the three main strikers at Anfield, though none has the pedigree of Owen who scored 158 goals in 297 games for Liverpool before moving to Spain.

Cisse, brought to Anfield by Benitez’s predecessor Gerard Houllier for £14 million last July, has scored four goals in Europe this season but is probably the most expendable of the front men.

“Sometimes you are high, sometimes you are low,” said Cisse after being substituted during the 1-0 Champions League loss to CSKA Sofia last Tuesday. “I have to live with it, it’s part of a football career.

“I would not be surprised if the manager says I have to go. It is his choice, maybe they do not need me.”

Everton tried unsuccessfully to bring Owen back to Merseyside and the clock is ticking for the England international who, if he stays with Real, will at least be fresh for any World Cup campaign.

ACCORDING TO Ashley Cole, the Arsenal left-back who to the best of my knowledge has never passed a test on the laws of the game (or maybe ever read them) “referees and linesmen are killing teams.”

Cole is unhappy that Graham Poll did not award a penalty when he was tackled by William Gallas during last Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Chelsea.

Few people apart from Cole seemed to believe it was a penalty and the matter was barely mentioned in the following morning’s match reports.

But then Cole chipped in with his two-penneth.

This is, of course, the same Ashley Cole who last February was guilty of a penalty area dive that Greg Louganis would have been proud of when Manchester United came to Highbury. It was possibly such a bad dive that the referee — Mr. Poll — did not take it seriously and kept his yellow card in his pocket.

It is also the same Ashley Cole who was found guilty by the Premier League of having a meeting with Arsenal’s biggest rival, Chelsea, the tapping-up case costing him a fine of £75,000.

His depressingly familiar whinge may have been designed to deflect from who was really responsible for Arsenal’s defeat — the players. Like Cole’s attempt to win a penalty, it failed miserably.

JOSE MOURINHO, who has never knowingly missed the chance of a good moan, even if there are no valid grounds for his gripe, was at it again this week.

The target of the Chelsea manager was UEFA, which fined and banned Mourinho last season for making false accusations about Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard attempting to influence referee Anders Frisk.

Mourinho was unhappy that Chelsea was not among the eight top seeds when the draw for the Champions League was made on Thursday. “Chelsea have been semifinalists twice in a row and are the champions of England,” he said, statements which are beyond dispute.

On the eve of the draw he said: “We will be seeded second and that means we will face somebody big, big, big. Normally, if you are the top seeds you have it quite easy in the group phase so you can play and control the group from the start of September and do what you need to do.

“But we are not top seeds and it means we are likely to play a team such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan or even Liverpool.”

In fact, Chelsea will play defending champion Liverpool in Group G, which also includes Belgium’s Anderlecht and Spain’s Real Betis.

UEFA bases the seedings on the results over the last five years, which is the reason Chelsea is second best. Despite its recent achievements there are at least eight clubs who have done better than the Blues over the previous five years.

Juventus and FC Porto, who Mourinho guided to Champions League glory two seasons ago, were in the same position as Chelsea, because over a five-year period they had not been as consistent as others.

“I have not studied the co-efficients and it is not for me to say if they are correct or not,” added Mourinho, though UEFA tends not to make mistakes with such matters.

“United is a top seed and so is Arsenal and Liverpool. Yet the champions of England are not.”

If Chelsea maintains its consistency in Europe it will become a top seed eventually, but being champions of England means nothing in Champions League terms.

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