A decade ago, he was stepping up to collect the Ballon d'Or which marked him out as the best footballer in Europe but as Manchester United attempt to become the best team in Europe he has had to content himself with the role of body double. When Sir Alex Ferguson's coaching staff started calling on the reserves to create a shadow Barcelona team for the first XI to play against in the past few weeks, Michael Owen found himself being David Villa.
Though Owen arrived at Old Trafford two years ago intent on proving that the talents which made him the scourge of European defences in 2001 still burned, his anxieties this week include the uncertainty of even making the United bench against the Catalan side on Saturday evening. The odds are weighted marginally against it. Little did he imagine on that winner's platform in Zurich 10 years ago that his first Premier League medal, finally attained in the season when the 18-title record of his Anfield alma mater was overhauled, would come after a campaign in which he started one league fixture and four matches overall.
There is a sense around Old Trafford that Owen may just stay for one more year with a manager who continues to be struck by his work-rate in training. There has been "one chat" about the future with Ferguson, Owen says. "I don't want to speak to the manager prior to a Champions League final, he's got much bigger things on his plate. Straight after the match – then we'll talk."
The equanimity with which the 31-year-old bears frustrations more befitting of a 35-year-old striker comes from an inner notion that Saturday evening at Wembley might just allow him to inscribe his name in history like the Saturday night in Munich which delivered that hat-trick against the Germans 10 years ago. "I will be imagining it," he says of that hypothetical notion. "I might not even have a place on the bench but I always have my own thoughts going into the game. And if you don't think something can happen then you have no chance of it happening. I will have private moments when I drift away and think about different things that could happen..."
The same goes for England. This is the man who became England's youngest captain since the sainted Bobby Moore, 40 years before, when Sven Goran Eriksson knocked on his door in April 2002 and asked him if he wanted to lead the side out against Paraguay at Anfield. ("Just a little bit," Owen told him.) In the bleak years after Euro 2004, he and Emile Heskey were the one effective forward partnership England fielded and it was they who swept aside the Russians at Wembley in September 2007. Fabio Capello, not averse to the occasional indecision with his captains, does not extend the rule to his strikers though, and even Championship players such as Cardiff City's Jay Bothroyd have been deemed a better choice this season.
The private agonies have included seeing Sir Bobby Charlton around the place at Old Trafford – initially a reminder, Owen admits, of how his once inexorable progress towards Charlton's record 49 England goals, was so abruptly cut off, with him nine goals adrift. "Every time I saw him, I thought: 'I'm closing on your record Sir Bobby.'" Owen says. "Now I just see him for who he is; the great man he is. I've not given up on England but I've given up trying to understand. It's come to an abrupt stop under this manager. I was disappointed for the first squad I missed; a little bit less for the next one and after about three or four times, I didn't really expect to see my name. For the last dozen squads, I haven't looked at the squad.
"It's sad really. It is. But if you split up with someone, there's not much point thinking 'will we get back get together?' You just upset yourself. If I keep getting up for something, then not getting it, I am just kidding myself."
The weeks spent in the vain hope of a chance from the United bench – with Javier Hernandez's presence creating one major impediment and Danny Welbeck's return from Sunderland threatening another next season – are less easy to rationalise. "Once in a while I get asked to play and expected to play really well, there and then," Owen says. "If you don't, you get a lot of criticism. People think 'he got his chance'. It is hard to prepare, prepare, prepare and all of a sudden play and produce – harder than you'd expect. I have to prepare physically as if I'm playing – eat the right foods, possibly energy foods, which are waiting to be burned inside my body, rest at certain times – and then all of a sudden I've not played but [prepared] as if I will. The next day I have to train three times as hard. I get into a poor cycle; mentally I am up and down. That's all been quite challenging for mind and body."
However, Owen knows the prospect of playing against what is rated as the world's greatest club side is better than having packed up and left for the summer. The fascinations of the past few weeks have included observing Ferguson in the red heat of the home straight of a Premier League title. "He's got far more to him than a fear factor to make you play well," Owen observes. "But he does have the side to him that you want to perform because a lot of people would be fearful of the telling-off. The older I get the more I look for different things. When I was a kid I just listened to what the manager said and go out and try to do it. As I've got older, I've got more inquisitive. Why is he saying that, trying to motivate a certain player like that? The older I get the more I understand and can resonate with him more."
It means that he can just about bear the request to be David Villa. And just who has been Lionel Messi's body double? Owen grins and walks away. Even the outsiders are insiders in Ferguson's ranks.
Playing the Villa: How the two strikers measure up
Michael Owen/David Villa
258 Career goals 303
40 International goals 46
19 Most goals in a league season 28
0.46 League goal/game ratio 0.46
1 FA Cup, 1 Uefa Cup Championship, 1 Premier League title, 1 Ballon d'Or Honours 1 World Cup, 1 European Championship, 1 La Liga title, 2 Copas del Rey
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