Football: Owen sprints into the England reckoning

Crystal Palace 0 Liverpool 3
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Paul Newman

Crystal Palace 0

Liverpool 3

Michael Owen celebrated his 18th birthday yesterday. You wonder what future celebrations lie in store for the fresh-faced Liverpool striker. Might they include, for example, a starring role in England's World Cup campaign next summer?

English national teams in most major sports have had a tendency to mistrust youth, but Glenn Hoddle's promotion of Rio Ferdinand suggests that he believes in the "if they're good enough, they're old enough" theory. Now that qualification for France 98 has been secured, Hoddle has the perfect chance to experiment.

It can only be hoped that Owen will form a part of England's World Cup plans. With Alan Shearer injured, and the form of Ian Wright and Stan Collymore so patchy, Owen surely deserves his chance alongside the likes of Andy Cole and Chris Sutton.

Apart from his excellent control, vision and finishing ability, Owen has one quality - pure speed - that puts him ahead of all the other contenders for an England striker's shirt. There cannot be a faster forward in the Premiership, particularly from a standing start.

At Selhurst Park on Saturday Owen's pace regularly had the Crystal Palace rearguard in panic. The young striker tormented Andy Linighan, Hermann Hreidarsson and Paul Warhurst at the centre of the home defence, passing them almost at will.

Owen's pace could even help him to overtake his Liverpool striking partner, Robbie Fowler, in the race for England honours. When Liverpool broke out to score their second goal, Owen had streaked several yards clear of Fowler to outflank the Palace defence and he ended a flowing move involving Steve McManaman, Oyvind Leonhardsen and Jamie Redknapp with a calm-as-you-like chip over the advancing Kevin Miller. Owen's pace was also a critical factor in Liverpool's third goal, his break down the left opening up space in the middle for Leonhardsen to score.

Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said after the game: "Pace is a wonderful thing. If teams are behind and have to chase the game and leave space you can exploit it. When you have to try to retrieve the game you leave yourselves open and people with the pace of Owen, McManaman and Leonhardsen can use it.

"Michael has come a long way in a short time. He is prepared to take on the big guys. The physical side does not bother him. He gives a bit back and he has to be careful with the odd bit of retaliation, but when he gets the chance to put the ball behind you it's a different ball game."

Owen's was the brightest of several top-quality Liverpool performances. Redknapp ran the midfield, McManaman was constantly involved and at the centre of the defence Bjorn Tore Kvarme and Dominic Matteo rarely looked in trouble. After the disappointment of last week's defeat by Manchester United it was an impressive performance by Liverpool, who rightly refuse to consider themselves out of the championship picture.

Crystal Palace, who have now drawn three and lost five of their eight home matches this season, had started promisingly, but their chances nosedived when Michele Padavano and Attilio Lombardo suffered first-half injuries. Padovano had looked particularly sharp, forcing David James into one superb reaction save and helping to create an opening for Neil Shipperley, who hit a post. Palace's heads seemed to drop after Padovano's departure and five minutes later Liverpool were in front, McManaman volleying home from close range after Jason McAteer's cross had deflected off Lombardo's shoulder. The result was never in doubt from that moment.

"I think the game certainly changed when Michele went off," Steve Coppell, Palace's manager, said. "He was looking bright and sharp and Lombardo gives you that little bit extra from midfield. Losing those two upset our rhythm. When we chopped and changed it wasn't successful. I don't think any combination would have made up for losing those two."

Goals: McManman (39) 0-1; Owen (56) 0-2; Leonhardsen (61) 0-3.

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Miller; Edworthy, Linighan, Warhurst, Hreidarsson, Gordon; Lombardo (Ginty, 49), Roberts, Fullarton; Shipperley, Padovano (Emblen, 34). Substitutes not used: Zohar, Quinn, Nash (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): James; McAteer, Kvarme, Matteo, Harkness (Berger, 89); McManaman, Redknapp, Carragher, Leonhardsen (Bjornebye, 89); Fowler, Owen. Substitutes not used: Ince, Rizzo, Nielsen (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Palace: Fullarton, Emblen, Warhurst.

Man of the match: Owen.

Attendance: 25,790.