Owen finds match-winning groove

Real Madrid 1 - Valencia 0
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The Independent Online

Michael Owen has had a memorable week. The England striker scored his second goal in two games on Saturday to earn Real Madrid a confidence-boosting 1-0 win at home to wounded champions Valencia and help silence the critics who had begun to doubt whether he was worthy of a place among the galacticos.

The former Liverpool striker opened his account for Real on Tuesday when he grabbed the winner in their 1-0 Champions' League win over Dynamo Kiev with a Gary Lineker-style close-range finish after he had darted in front of two defenders to turn in a low cross from Ronaldo.

This time his goal was a rather classier effort, the sort he must have dreamed about when he first decided to swap what he likes to call "the comfort zone" of Anfield for the pressure-cooker atmosphere at the Bernabeu.

The move began a few metres inside Real's own half when Zinedine Zidane off-loaded the ball to Raul after shaking off the attentions of the Valencia midfielder Momo Sissoko. The Real captain, who was quick to spot Owen's run, threaded the ball through the Valencia defence and the England man fired the ball high into the net in a confident finish with the outside of his foot from 15 yards out.

"It's been an important week for both me and for the team," Owen said. "I'm feeling more comfortable all the time and it's always good news to get on the scoresheet. The two wins have given us an important boost and even though we aren't scoring that many goals we are improving."

The Real Madrid coach Mariano Garcia Remon had decided to repeat the attack-minded line-up that had helped to beat Kiev in midweek, playing Owen up front alongside Ronaldo and dropping Raul back on to the left side of midfield. The gamble had paid off after just eight minutes, but it did not come without considerable help from opponents Valencia.

Claudio Ranieri's side were still licking their wounds after their 5-1 mauling at the hands of a rampant Internazionale in midweek and handed the initiative to Real from the start. The former Chelsea coach, who was already missing his influential winger Vicente and defensive rock Roberto Ayala through injury, opted for ultra-conservative tactics for the trip to the Bernabeu and left the mercurial Argentinian playmaker Pablo Aimar on the bench.

Without him the Ches lacked any sort of imagination in attack and failed to threaten the Real goal until nearly half an hour into the match, while their notoriously rugged midfield appeared to have lost all confidence after being torn apart by Inter's Brazilian striker Adriano on Wednesday.

Real were in complete control in the first half, but failed to press home their advantage as Ronaldo and the self-consumed Luis Figo missed several good scoring chances.

The appearance of Aimar after the break gave Valencia a new lease of life and Garcia Remon reacted quickly by strengthening his midfield, bringing on the underrated Santiago Solari to replace Owen. But Real flagged badly as the second half wore on.

Zidane, who was playing in the centre of midfield alongside Guti in the absence of the injured David Beckham, ran out of steam with 15 minutes to go and if Valencia had been more alert they would have been able to salvage at least a point instead of slipping to their second league defeat in a row.

Despite Real's embarrassment of riches up front, they have yet to score more than a single goal in any league match this season, with all four of their victories finishing 1-0. This week Garcia Remon's risky strategy of playing three of his four strikers from the start paid off, but even he realises that it is not a long-term solution to the side's problems.

"It's difficult to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit together," he admitted after the game. "We all know that Owen is a great player and has needed time to settle. He's earned us two victories this week and worked really hard in both games, but we are just going to have to use him when we need him."

Real Madrid: (4-4-2) Casillas; Salgado, Helguera, Samuel, Roberto Carlos; Figo (Celades, 85), Guti, Zidane, Raul; Ronaldo (Morientes, 80), Owen (Solari, 59).

Valencia: (4-4-2) Canizares; Curro Torres, Navarro, Marchena, Carboni; Rufete (Fiore, 46), Albelda, Baraja, Sissoko (Aimar, 46); Angulo, Di Vaio (Mista, 69).

Referee: P Lasa.

Attendance: 78,000.

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