Football: World Cup - Owen makes his mark

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THE MOMENT Michael Owen equalised against Romania in Toulouse, Teddy Sheringham probably knew his days as an automatic choice under Glenn Hoddle were numbered and yesterday the England coach finally bowed to public demand by giving the 18-year-old Liverpool striker his first start in the World Cup.

Much was expected of him, but the thought did occur that if things did not work out for England then who would Hoddle turn to by way of a change now that Owen was on from the start? In the event, that negative point of view was never an issue, thanks in no small measure to Owen himself.

It took him just five minutes to make a mark on the game, crashing a right-footed volley past the angle of post and bar following Gary Neville's cross. That was enough to prompt Harold Lozano into letting Owen know he was around with a crude foul as Owen tried to break forward a minute later. It was the first of several such challenges that he had to endure, mainly from Jorge Bermudez and Mauricio Serna, and on the whole he coped well despite staying down for the count on a couple of occasions.

Owen was playing in a more advanced role than Sheringham would have occupied had he played, and now that Paul Scholes has replaced Paul Gascoigne in midfield it makes more sense for a player like Owen to be chosen, regardless of Sheringham's form. Over the last couple of years Gascoigne tended to play much deeper than Scholes now does, leaving room for Sheringham to express himself behind Shearer. Scholes does not leave so much space behind the strikers, and as a consequence Sheringham often looked lost against Romania.

Owen's movement was impressive throughout and he was as involved as any England player in the first 45 minutes, combining well with Darren Anderton and Gary Neville on England's right before switching to play at times as a left-winger. But it was from the right wing that he contributed towards England's opening goal with a superb cross under pressure from two Colombian defenders.

He blotted his copybook a few minutes later when he really ought to have scored following a fine England move involving Beckham and Anderton, whose cross evaded Scholes and dropped invitingly for him. But after setting himself, he volleyed tamely over and it was as if he had had too much time to think about it.

It must be said, in Sheringham's defence if nothing else, that although Owen was playing his part he was benefiting from a much improved England performance. Their attitude was different to that in Toulouse from the word go, and Owen's pace was a welcome bonus.

His first real chance to show that searing pace came when Shearer released him down the left. He seemed to have raced past Bermudez into the penalty area but the Colombian defender recovered well and managed to block Owen's shot. The second half began with another Owen burst, this time setting up Scholes for a thunderous drive well saved, and Owen himself again might have scored after Sol Campbell's bucaneering run but his first-time toe- poke was not quite enough to catch Farid Mondragon off his guard.

Another darting run, this time going past Bermudez, might have brought him his goal but he just overran it and his shot came back off the goalkeeper's legs.

Owen then popped up on the edge of his own penalty area, sorting out a defensive tangle for his colleagues before heading back to his more customary station alongside Shearer. Owen had another chance to score when his partner put him through in the last 10 minutes. Again he outpaced the defence but his shot was straight at Mondragon.

Although his partnership with Shearer could not be described as an instant hit, as each man tended to forage for himself rather than working as a pair. But it looks good in theory and as long as England keep getting the results no one will take much notice of that.