Manchester United: Owen's Immobility Shows The Knackers Yard Beckons
It’s amazing what a brace against an uninspiring yet deadly rival can do. With a mishit and a toe-poke, Michael Owen set his media chums into a frenzy. The Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter spoke of the ‘enduring respect for Owen’ and how he would still be a ‘great wild-card’ for England while the Mirror’s Oliver Holt tweeted his delight at the (ex/exiled) England striker’s double.
Said journalists, whose faces were probably contorted with excitement at the ‘comeback’, should now be a shade beetroot in embarrassment. If Owen had his own range of children’s books it would be Where’s Wally? He is that peripheral that one has to scour the pitch to acknowledge his presence, and although that hallmark has played to his advantage in the past (notably the late equaliser and winner for England in a 2005 friendly against Argentina) he is no longer regarded in the pantheon of potent poachers.
As a Scouser with a suspiciously frivolous, greed-induced approach to football, Owen is still not accepted by some of the hardcore contingent of Manchester United’s support. Grudges from maiming Ronny Johnsen in a 1998 Good Friday fixture to his Anfield history ensures that his chant remains the same ditty aimed at every Liverpudlian (‘You Scouse b*stard’). And it is regaled not altogether sarcastically by many Reds.
Less than 10 minutes into United’s draw at Stoke City, insult and then salt was administered into the team’s wounds. Javier Hernández picked up another injury, courtesy of a collision with ‘keeper Asmir Begovic which should have warranted a penalty after Jonathan Woodgate bundled into the back of him, and it was Owen who arrived as opposed to Danny Welbeck to spearhead United’s attack.
With Wayne Rooney ruled out with a hamstring strain, United had to prepare themselves for a slower tempo to their play since Dimitar Berbatov was filling in. Reliable in possession yet ponderous, Hernández was the livewire foil for the Bulgarian to supply, and ostensibly the Little Pea’s departure was tempered by Owen and Berbatov’s past success alongside one another.
Owen’s presence contrived to slow the Reds’ play down even further and acted as a fillip for Stoke.
However Welbeck’s pace and physique trump Owen’s experience, or his telepathy with Berbatov for that matter, thanks to his auspicious start this campaign and how United have benefitted from the promptness of the Mancunian. Owen’s presence contrived to slow the Reds’ play down even further and acted as a fillip for Stoke.
Although Nani – again United’s best player – fired them into the lead with an incisive finish, it was a rare act of alacrity from United’s forward. Ashley Young experienced his worst performance since his summer arrival and Anderson was too cagy against, frankly, a couple of Irish carthorses in Rory Delap and Glenn Whelan. Owen meanwhile was two yards off the pace and his second touch was a tackle in a display that belied his impressive midweek performance, with Berbatov on one occasion visibly expressing his exasperation at his partner’s immobility.
The Potters meanwhile peppered David de Gea’s goal with the Spaniard brilliantly equal to Andy Wilkinson’s strike and relieved after fumbling John Walters’ effort. Inevitably though the set-piece was United’s undoing as Peter Crouch, uncharacteristically useful in the air, lost Phil Jones and capitalised on De Gea’s uncertainty to leave his line. Usually the routine with a ball in the air to the 6 ft 7 in striker is that he acts the dunce needlessly fouling a defender before a look of incredulity is etched on his face, ironically leaving his audience incredulous at his own obliviousness.
For the second consecutive week United conceded early into the second half and then advertised their concerns courtesy of Rio Ferdinand’s clumsiness assisting Crouch for a golden opportunity, only to be denied by De Gea, while instead of playing the ball on the deck they resorted to long ball football. Jonathan Woodgate and Ryan Shawcross, both over six feet tall, gleefully dwarfed United’s Scouse midget whilst the aforementioned carthorses faced little concern posed by their visitors in the absence of Hernández, Rooney and the constructive Tom Cleverley.
Sir Alex Ferguson commendably avoided tailoring his line-up to combat Stoke’s physicality, but his players struggled to expose their opponents’ limited ability and appeared overawed. The silk and steel Ferguson failed to recruit for the midfield in the summer was conspicuously absent as United looked intimidated for the first time in Staffordshire since their hosts’ promotion, and were devoid of a match-winning lock-picker. The cowardly officiating was a handicap but not the architect of their five-match victory streak ending.
Welbeck did eventually arrive, but for the wrong forward. Owen avoided the ignominy of being the substitute substituted in favour of Berbatov, who although ineffectual, didn’t receive the ball often enough yet sustained United’s final third play. Owen on the other hand turned attack into defence. He rightly remains fifth choice striker, and it’s difficult to recall anything fifth being any good. Maybe The Fifth Element?
United’s lightweight toils ensured that a more enterprising final five or 10 minutes was too belated as they reverted to their passing game, aided by Welbeck’s directness and Giggs’ guile. The latter should have won the game yet miscued his volley well wide after a pinpoint cross from Nani, but a win would have masked physical and creative shortcomings. They received their dose of reality.
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