Football: Owen relegated to shadows

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The Independent Online
AFTER ALL the hype about England's embarrassment of striking riches and the presence of three of Arsenal's fabled back four in Howard Wilkinson's first line-up, it was left to one of Highbury's French attackers, Nicolas Anelka, to provide the frisson of flair at Wembley.

Minutes after Michael Owen had trudged off to allow Andy Cole a third cap as substitute under three different managers, Anelka beat Nigel Martyn with an exquisite finish. To prove it was no fluke he did it again moments later. Earlier, he had sent a shot against the underside of the bar at the very end where Geoff Hurst scored in similar fashion 33 years ago.

The lack of a Russian linesman to confirm the validity of the "goal" was about the only consolation for Wilkinson on an evening when Zinedine Zidane exposed the mediocrity of England's midfield supply line.

When it was first mooted that he might replace Glenn Hoddle, Wilkinson must have felt like the Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg, when he sang: "How can I lie back and think of England when I don't even know who's in the team?"

Yet if it was Hoddle's squad, it was Wilkinson's team. By pairing Alan Shearer and Owen at the start the interim coach gave the clearest possible sign that, whatever the claims of Cole and the fixture's friendly status, he did not place a high priority on experimentation.

In theory, the qualities of Shearer and Owen offered the classic partnership: one the natural target man with his aerial power, the other with the pace and predatory instincts of a whippet. A turbo-charged version of Wilkinson's old Leeds duo, Lee Chapman and Rod Wallace, if you like.

Starting together for only the seventh time, they combined to telling effect as early as the eighth minute. Shearer climbed above Marcel Desailly to head the ball down just outside France's penalty area. Owen read his intentions and gobbled up the yards, only for his shot to come back off Fabien Barthez's left leg.

We have come to expect miracles from Owen, so it was a surprise to see him miscue the ball. His impact during the past year has been so great that one assumes he will thrive even when the service is as spasmodic as it was in the first half.

Perhaps the demands placed on a 19-year-old, who made his international debut on the equivalent night a year earlier are simply too great.

France had their own prodigy, Anelka, ploughing a lone furrow up front, but were quick to support him from midfield. Zidane furnished him with a steady stream of flicks, glances and measured passes, and there was an inevitability about the Juventus player's part in France's first-ever goal at Wembley.

Anelka, whose second goal highlighted the fact that France were better able than England to deliver from wide positions, did not make the 22 for France 98, when his compatriots' triumph was accompanied by strident criticism of their strikers.

In last night's match programme - in which, in true Stalinist tradition, Hoddle had been virtually airbrushed out of England's history - Roger Lemerre sought to set the record straight. "It wasn't just a case of France conceding the fewest goals in the World Cup," the new French coach asserted. "We also scored the most, which means that the criticism of our attack is not justified. In forwards like Anelka, Henry, Trezeguet, Pires, Dugarry and Vairelles, we have people of real talent. But it's true that we do expect more of them."

Lemerre, intriguingly, did not mention the man who played centre-forward for Les Bleus in the final. For those English strikers wondering how they will ever split the Shearer-Owen axis, Stephane Guivarc'h's vanishing act confirms what Sheringham could already have told them about how rapidly perceptions can change.

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