Wolfsburg 1-3 Manchester United

Hat-trick throws Owen England lifeline

December 8, 2009
By Harry Harris
(Archive)

Michael Owen must have sat at home watching the World Cup draw in Cape Town thinking to himself: "I'll show all of the doubters who think I have no chance of making it into Fabio Capello's squad".

Michael Owen
GettyImagesMichael Owen scores his second goal

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Considering Owen has been ignored by England's Italian coach for so long, the striker has struggled to even make pundits' lists of 'possibles' for South Africa. Until now that is. A hugely unexpected hat-trick in the Champions League - in such a patchwork United side - is set to reignite a long-standing debate.

Carlton Cole has been highly rated as a potential understudy to Emile Heskey, along with Peter Crouch. While Jermain Defoe has been nailed-on for a place in the squad ever since his five-goal haul against Wigan convinced everyone he is, at the very least, the first-choice impact sub.

Yet some experts, such as Glenn Hoddle, have suggested Owen must go to South Africa, even if Capello opts for five forwards and leaves out a midfield player.

Owen's hat-trick in Germany will alert Capello who is aware that the Champions League is equivalent to international class and anyone scoring regularly in this competition must be taken seriously.

Capello has sidelined Owen, not just because of concerns over his form and fitness, but also because of his style, which offers limited contribution outside of the penalty area. Yet Owen played his part in the build-up to his first strike, combining with Paul Scholes and Nani, before demonstrating his old ability to get into the right position to head in the Portuguese winger's cross.

The Wolfsburg match was supposed to be all about United's makeshift team - the 14 or 15 players missing, the plague upon any defender worthy of a first team place, and the clutch of kids who hadn't even started a single game between them, including the chief executive's son!

There were some bizarre positional duties - most of them in defence, where Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher ended up the centre-half pairing when Sir Alex switched from a back three to the usual 4-4-2, making it the 13th different centre-back paring so far this season

Despite the odd couple in central defence, the entire team looked pretty experienced, and it was one of the older hands who came up trumps, just a few days short of his 30th birthday.

Up popped Owen with a glancing header a minute before half-time, before finishing off the spirited German champions with a tap-in second, finding acres of space inside the area, as only a master goalscorer can. He completed a ruthless display of finishing by claiming his hat-trick with a confident chip over the keeper. It was the sort of finish, one-on-one, that used to be a hallmark of a player once rated one of the best in Europe, if not the world.

It has been a long way down for Owen and it's an even harder climb back up, with Owen still trying for the summit once again - a coveted World Cup place.

Owen seemed destined to end up with a hat-trick in this match. Minutes before his third, Wolfsburg keeper Diego Benaglio saved when the striker had a one-on-one, a position from which he is usually deadly. But the next time he broke through with just Benaglio ahead of him, he dinked it over the oncoming stopper with the confidence of the Owen of old. That gives him an interesting present with United, and possibly a future with England once again.

It is a gradual process to get Owen back to his former glories, and he is most definitely making progress with this goalscoring performance.

The last time Owen collected a Champions League hat-trick was back in his Liverpool days, and it was a throwback to the striker's prolific past with his first United hat-trick. It was his first three-goal haul in four years.

It shouldn't be forgotten that he is so close to Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time England goalscoring record, but few believed a return to the England fold under Capello would be possible. They might need to think again.

Owen started the game overshadowed by a Wolfsburg team boasting striking sensation Edin Dzeko, who is so highly rated that he comes with a £30 million price tag.

Wolfsburg
GettyImagesWolfsburg's Edin Dzeko was the top scorer in the Bundesliga with 22 goals

The German club might just be willing to take £25 million, but Arsene Wenger has already publicly declared that will probably price Arsenal out of the market. Sir Alex Ferguson denied United were interested in the striker after recent speculation, but his head might have been turned after Dzeko grabbed his second goal in as many games against United.

The Bosnian forward demonstrated precisely why he is so highly rated with a thumping near-post header for the Wolfsburg equaliser but if United were considering a move, they may be left disappointed as Dzeko has consistently expressed his desire to move to AC Milan, while Inter boss Jose Mourinho is also believed to be an admirer.

The shrewd Sir Alex usually knows what is going on behind the scenes, so that might explain why he hasn't been overtly excited about the Bosnian - if he has a hunch Dzeko is off elsewhere.

Sir Alex will likely be more interested in the way Owen has gradually worked his way back into goalscoring form.

The United boss took a gamble in recruiting Owen at the start of the season on a free transfer from Newcastle United, though in the eyes of many fans his winning goal against City more than justified the risk. And a Champions League hat-trick proves the pedigree of a player who had looked destined to join a less glamorous club such as Hull City.

Sir Alex is a wise old judge, and Owen has come good at just the right time with a performance that is typical of a predator that former England boss Hoddle has argued vehemently is required to boost England's striking options at next summer's tournament.

Hoddle believes England can only win the World Cup with a striker capable of hitting at least five goals in the tournament, possibly finishing the leading goalscorer.

Too much depends on Wayne Rooney, while Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have the capability to score goals from midfield.

Two of Owen's goals came from pin-point crosses, and that is what Capello is searching for from England where the crossing from Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips can be erratic at times. That's why Capello is likely to stick with David Beckham who can cross with an accuracy that has not deserted him with age.

Beckham's former club United again showed their resilience against Wolfsburg, claiming an impressive result despite not producing an impressive performance. But they did enough, gaining the three points that ensured Sir Alex's side topped the group.

It's just over eight years since Owen stole all the headlines after a famous hat-trick in Germany and over the next few days the striker can, quite rightly, take up the column inches once again.