Nothing in football is sacred anymoreMICHAEL OWEN was on his way to Real Madrid overnight after Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez confirmed the sale of the England striker.
Provided he passes a medical, Owen will join Real for a fee believed to be in the region of £8 million ($20.5 million) with 25-year-old Real midfielder Antonio Nunez moving to Anfield as a makeweight.
Benitez, the former Valencia boss who replaced Gerard Houllier earlier this summer, said he had wanted Owen to stay but had been powerless to prevent the striker from leaving because he only had a year left on his contract.
"When I came here he (Owen) had one year left on his contract," Benitez told a press conference in Liverpool. "Real Madrid knew that, and when a big club like them come knocking you cannot control it.
"The money from his sale will be used to balance the team. We still have good forwards here and a good team. We did our best to keep him but, as I say, in the end it was a difficult situation for us."
The terms of the deal for Owen falls well short of Liverpool's initial valuation of their star striker.
But the reality was that Real held all the aces because Liverpool, having given up on efforts to persuade Owen to sign a new contract, initiated the sale, knowing that the 24-year-old could have walked away for nothing next summer.
Liverpool had hoped to get £10 million ($25.67 million) for Owen plus a replacement striker, either Fernando Morientes or Samuel Eto'o.
Any hope of Morientes moving to Anfield was scuppered when he played in Real's Champions League qualifier earlier this week, ensuring he would be ineligible to play for any other club later in the competition.
Eto'o, who has played for Real Mallorca since 2000, has meanwhile opted for a move to Barcelona.
Benitez is expected to use the funds raised by the sale of Owen to go towards the signing of 26-year-old midfielder Luis Garcia from Barcelona.
Benitez is already in advanced negotiations aimed at bringing Real Sociedad's highly-rated holding midfielder Xabi Alonso to Anfield, although that deal could yet be hijacked by Real Madrid following the collapse of their efforts to sign Patrick Vieira, who announced Friday that he was staying at Arsenal.
Owen's departure from the club he has been associated with since he was 11 years old became inevitable at the start of the week when Benitez abruptly called a halt to negotiations with the player that had been dragging on for over a year.
The striker was then left on the bench in the club's 2-0 win over Austrian club AK Graz in a Champions League qualifier, ensuring he would able to play for Real later in the competition.
Benitez, who guided Valencia to two Spanish titles in three years, felt able to sanction the sale of his star striker because of the arrival of 14-million-pound striker Djibril Cisse and the form of Milan Baros, who was outstanding for the Czech Republic at Euro 2004.
The Spanish manager has also dropped hints that he felt Owen was over-rated and wielded too much influence in the Anfield dressing room.
Despite his consistent record of scoring, the England striker's best form has come only in erratic bursts recently and injuries have taken the edge off the pace he enjoyed as a teenager.
He has also never managed to forge a successful partnership with any other striker at Liverpool.
Owen has spoken in the past of his desire to play in Spain or Italy and one of his closest friends, former England striker Gary Lineker, believes he will thrive in La Liga.
Lineker, who had a successful spell at Barcelona in the 1980's, said: "I think Michael has the qualities to succeed. He's been one of the top goalscorers in world football for a long time and playing up front in a side like Real Madrid you would fancy him to score a few goals given the creativity in that side.
"It's probably time for Michael to have a fresh challenge. He struggled a little bit last season with injuries and the team struggling and so if it goes ahead it could be a good move for him."
Owen would not be guaranteed a place in the Real first team but Lineker believes he would benefit from competing with the likes of Raul and Ronaldo.
"Raul was struggling all last season and was poor in Euro 2004 and Ronaldo has had his injuries as well," Lineker said.
"All the big teams now have large squads and if you're going to be a world-class player it's a challenge you would want to take."