Michael Owen hit 'The Big 40' as England took a mighty stride towards Euro
2008 with a clinical dismissal of Guus Hiddink's Russia.
Owen struck twice in the first half to become only the fourth player, after
Jimmy Greaves, Sir Bobby Charlton and Gary Lineker to score 40 times for the
A rather less prolific player, Rio Ferdinand, struck his first international
goal since the 2002 World Cup six minutes from the end. So, six months after
suffering the worst abuse ever directed at an England manager, Steve McClaren
now knows that England require just five points from their remaining three games
to qualify, providing one of them comes in the return meeting with Russia next
It is a quite startling about-turn in fortunes and, while Gareth Barry and
Emile Heskey in particular deserve heaps of praise for their superb
contributions, Owen is the man who made it possible.
A scorer in his last two games for Newcastle and last two competitive outings
for England, Owen's double bore all the hallmarks of a striker nearing his peak
And, though Russia did enough to suggest they will not be easily thwarted on a
plastic surface in Moscow on October 17, by which time England should have
opened up a five-point cushion over Hiddink's men by beating Estonia on home
soil, with Owen around, Wayne Rooney back and Frank Lampard, Owen Hargreaves and
David Beckham available, McClaren has every reason to be optimistic.
Despite lamely hinting at changes, McClaren surprised no-one by sticking with
the side which turned in such a convincing display in the weekend win over
He sent them out with two challenges; get right into Russia's faces and prove
it was possible to reach the highest standards two games in succession. By the
time Swedish referee Martin Hansson brought the opening period to an end the
response had been delivered in the most positive manner possible.
The more hard-to-please England fans grumbled on Saturday that the opposition
was not up to scratch. There could be no such complaint, excuse or `ah but'
clause this time around.
Against a side coached by the legendary Hiddink, who had conceded just once in
eight qualifying games prior to kick-off, England attacked with verve, vitality
Had they been four in front at the break, it would not have been an injustice
to the hosts, who had heroes all around the pitch.
Barry, once again begging the question why he has been such an infrequent
member of England squads down the years, Joe Cole tormenting Russia down the
left, Shaun Wright-Phillips doing the same on the right.
And then there was Heskey and Owen. A model partnership in every sense and
delivering when it mattered.
As always in these situations, a slice of luck is required and England got it
when Hansson ruled Konstantin Zyryanov had handled just before he fired a shot
on the turn past Paul Robinson.
Russia thought they had an equaliser and television replays did nothing to
undermine their argument. It was definitely a borderline call and thankfully for
England, the only man who mattered sided with them.
By that point Owen had scored his first and both Heskey and Wright-Phillips
should have followed his lead.
Throughout his lengthy injury problems, McClaren never wavered in his belief
that once Owen was restored to full fitness, England would be a different team.
The truth of those words was evident in Estonia last June when Owen made a
goalscoring return to competitive combat.
He was on target again on Saturday and the finish from Barry's cross to give
England their seventh-minute advantage tonight was pure class.
John Terry attracted two Russian defenders to Barry's cross like moths to a
flame, leaving Owen completely on his own.
The Newcastle striker controlled with one touch, then rifled home with a
Russia's third-choice goalkeeper Viacheslav Malafeev pulled off an excellent
save to turn away Cole's deflected effort immediately after Zyryanov's `goal'
had been ruled out but within minutes he was picking the ball out of his net
There seemed no danger when Ferdinand punted upfield from inside his own half.
But Heskey squeezed between two unsuspecting defenders and got his head to the
ball with firm enough contact to send it bouncing into Owen's path.
This time there was no need to control as the Newcastle man sent his volley
arrowing into the top corner.
Hiddink's response was a substitution and tactical change which was tantamount
to an admission of defeat, an embarrassing situation indeed for a man who was
one of the early candidates to replace Sven-Goran Eriksson and whom many would
still prefer to McClaren.
Not on this evidence though. For, while Dmitry Sychev twice went close just
after the break, Russia had neither the brawn nor the brain to unsettle the
hosts and Ferdinand ended their miserable night by drilling home near the end.