Owen misfires while Valencia outshines namesakes
"Just imagine Michael Owen scoring a goal at the Stretford End," urged the relentlessly enthusiastic man on the PA. It still sounds strange, but perhaps repetition will bring a normality to it. These are surreal times at Old Trafford: directly in front of the press box, there were as many fans wearing shirts bearing David Villa's name as Owen's. One of each, to be precise.
The small matter of 158 Liverpool goals is not easily forgotten but when Owen made the slow trudge to the touchline after 63 minutes, he was greeted by generous applause. Sir Alex Ferguson's decisions rarely meet with open dissent and the same supporters who worshipped Carlos Tevez appreciated Owen's efforts, if not his finishing. His introduction to 74,311 supporters proved to be an evening with the misses.
As Manchester United concluded their pre-season fixtures by defeating Valencia 2-0, the Stretford End did witness Owen bearing down on goal following a fine pass by Darren Fletcher, though imagination was required to see him scoring, the striker skewing his shot some way wide. A further effort, following a surge from Antonio Valencia, missed the other post.
The majority of his opportunities actually came in front of the East Stand, not the hardcore of the United support. Owen, at least, was much more prominent than in much of his Newcastle career without resolving the debate over his recruitment: masterstroke or a sign of desperation? It is too early, of course, to make a definitive judgment, but Owen's advocates have a theory that incorporates two provisos: put Owen in a better team and he will get chances; get chances and he will score goals. On this evidence, the first is certainly true, but it doesn't necessarily lead to the latter part of the equation.
Indeed, an hour at Old Trafford brought more chances than several months at St James' Park. First, he rose well to head Patrice Evra's cross over the bar. It was a reminder that, perhaps appropriately for someone who took a helicopter to training, he appeared at his most dangerous in the air at Newcastle.
Next United's new-look strike-force combined. Owen and Wayne Rooney hadn't previously played a minute together in pre-season and each appears to prefer the company of Emile Heskey in an England shirt. Renewing a partnership that had seemed consigned to the past, they provided evidence of an understanding. A delightful pass from the younger man found Owen, in trademark fashion, lurking on the shoulder of the last defender. He lifted the ball over the advancing goalkeeper, but watched it trickle past the far post.
Then, following Fletcher's pass, his driven shot was much too close to Cesar Sanchez. It was his sole effort on target, watched by a typically stony-faced Fabio Capello. Ferguson was more lighthearted. "He should have scored four," he said, with a grin. "His movement was fantastic. He probably deserved at least one, particularly the first one. It was a fantastic pass from Wayne, marvellous movement and he was just unlucky."
Four goals in as many games in the Asian leg of United's pre-season may shown that Owen can prosper against lesser opposition. An unconvincing display against Bayern Munich and a profligate showing against the Spanish side cloud the picture.
If Owen's evening is open to varying interpretations, another newcomer was a definite positive. Indeed, there was rare evidence of Valencia overcoming Valencia without any evidence of a self-destructive streak. Valencia - Antonio, United's new winger - provided the cross to unlock the La Liga side's defence. Rooney headed it in emphatically. A second delivery from the right flank was only palmed away as far as Tom Cleverley, accelerating in off the left wing to slot it in.
"The most exciting part was Valencia's performance," added Ferguson. "I thought he was very, very good. He's got great balance and he has got power and speed. Coming to our club, he has taken the challenge well. He is playing with a lot of purpose."
The visitors twice came close when Michel struck the bar with a rasping drive and Tomasz Kuszczak made a superb block to deny Miku either side of half-time. Ultimately, however, the Valencia to impress was an electric Ecuador international.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Antonio Valencia - The Ecuadorian is unlikely to replace Cristiano Ronaldo as a goalscorer, but as an out-and-out winger, he looked a worthy successor. His pace and penetration led to a series of chances.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Besides Valencia, Fletcher excelled to suggest he can carry on his fine form from last season. Of the lesser-known players, Cleverley showed some neat touches while, following a nervous start, Richie de Laet overlapped effectively from right-back. Darron Gibson struck the bar and drew a fine save with his ferocious long-range shooting.
VALENCIA VERDICT: Quite how a club with such debts has managed to retain the services of David Villa and David Silva is a source of bemusement. But especially in the first half, before Unai Emery made 10 changes, Valencia looked a very accomplished side, capable of qualifying for the Champions League.