A nation's hopes rest with Owen, again

September 6, 2007
By Chris Murphy

It's a good job Michael Owen is used to the weight of an entire nation's expectations on his shoulders as this next week sees him complete back-to-back qualifying games for the first time in two years.

Michael Owen
GettyImages / MartinRoseThat was then... Owen and Heskey get in on the celebrations with England

And woe betide Owen if he doesn't emerge having saved his country's Euro 2008 hopes - not to mention Steve McClaren's job in the process.

The diminutive striker heads into the crucial games against Israel and Russia at his best level of sharpness since December 2005 when his hat-trick helped Newcastle beat West Ham 4-2.

That day he played alongside one of England's greatest centre forwards, Alan Shearer, who also bagged a goal. Though they only played together nine times for Newcastle, they netted ten goals between them in those matches. In three of those games they both scored.

No-one could argue the combination didn't have balance; Shearer's power to Owen's nimble feet, Shearer's aerial prowess to Owen's neatly timed runs and Shearer's experience to complement Owen's pace. Both were also clinical finishers.

What would Owen give to have his former strike partner with him this week? Instead he may well have to make do with Alan Smith, Andy Johnson or Emile Heskey. None of that trio could, or would, claim to be anywhere near the level of Shearer in his pomp. Perhaps that's why Owen was reportedly so keen on Emile Heskey being brought back into the fold.

Like he did with Shearer, Owen shares a sense of familiarity and understanding with Heskey, and a decent strike rate when they were paired up front together. The stats make for encouraging reading; the partnership has contributed 14 goals in 12 games for England.

However, some context must be given to that run.

In those games Michael Owen was 100 per cent fit, a yard quicker and more clinical in front of goal. It also helped that he was playing alongside Heskey week-in week-out at club level. The two of them spearheaded Liverpool's attack and knew each other's game inside out.

Heskey knew the channels Owen stalked. Owen knew where Heskey's precise flick-ons would drop. And the goals were raining in - for Owen at least.

But in that stretch Heskey scored just two meaningful goals - when both games were all but settled; the fifth in England's famous romp over Germany in Munich, and the third in their 3-0 victory over Denmark at the World Cup in Japan.

His other goals came in friendlies against South Africa, Malta, and during the 4-0 rout of an inexperienced Spanish side. A record of five goals in 43 appearances is a lamentable return for a striker.

At international level a good centre forward should be aiming for roughly one in three. Heskey's strike rate works out at less than one in eight. As such, when a precocious Wayne Rooney exploded onto the scene in Spring 2003, Heskey's England days were numbered.

Even Darius Vassell was preferred as and when a substitute forward was needed at Euro 2004 - hardly a vote of confidence given the then Villa striker's pedigree.

The following year, when he left Anfield for Birmingham, Heskey's International career evaporated - until this week.

Still, it has been three years since Heskey and Owen played together and times have most definitely changed.

Heskey is no longer punching above his weight with a Liverpool side challenging at the top end of the table, with a talented midfield creating chances galore. Instead he has plumbed the depths of the Premier League with Birmingham and Wigan, clubs more concerned with survival.

His strike rate a both clubs makes his stint at Liverpool look lethal.

Michael Owen
GettyImages / IanHorrocksOwen heads in against Wigan last weekend

If he does play, it'll be a very different Michael Owen he lines up alongside too. Despite his protestations of match fitness, the 27-year-old still isn't as sharp as he'd like. In a sense, it's a thankless task for him.

If he scores a couple of goals he'll merely be doing his job, gradually repaying his country for all those matches missed. Fail to hit the net and critics will say he isn't up to it anymore and will never be the same again.

As it is, Peter Crouch is only unavailable for the Israel game and would be the obvious choice to partner Owen against the far bigger task of Gus Hiddink's Russia on Wednesday.

He has 12 goals in his 20 caps, a clutch of those coming against lesser teams like Jamaica, Andorra and Trinidad and Tobago however.

Should Heskey not make the starting XI for Israel, Steve McClaren is not blessed with formidable alternatives. He could persist with Alan Smith, who had a hand in creating Owen's two glorious chances against Germany last month.

The new Magpie is never found lacking in spirit or determination, but has only scored once in 18 caps, and has been operating in midfield for his new club so far this season.

Andy Johnson is never found wanting in terms of effort either, but has hardly been prolific for Everton since his move, scoring 12 goals in 35 games, and has yet to find the net for England in his seven appearances.

Jermain Defoe has the best record at club level, but he hasn't been first choice with Martin Jol for a considerable period of time, and has only recorded three goals in his 24 caps. All of which adds to the burden on Owen.

Of course, he has been in this position before and revelled in it. People have consistently questioned him, but he has always answered his critics with goals.

With a good pre-season behind him, he has found the net twice in four days for Newcastle, and his precious last-gasp goal against Wigan at the weekend may prove to be just as important for England.

Having seen two clear-cut opportunities go begging in the first half, and a series of half-chances missed in the second, he must have thought it wasn't to be his day. But Sam Allardyce kept him on for the full 90-minutes, sensing a goal would come. He was right.

In the 87th minute Owen nipped in front of Titus Bramble and nodded home a cross from Obafemi Martins.

Had he not found the net, he'd be heading into Saturday's game with even more question marks hovering over his head, and doubts firmly rooted in his own mind.

As it is, he sets his sights on Israel as Newcastle's hero and match-winner, bristling with confidence.

Despite the mounting pressure and despite lacking that last five per cent of sharpness, it would be a brave man who'd bet against him proving England's saviour once more.


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