Michael Owen may have engineered one of the most remarkable victories in Manchester United's recent European history but Sir Alex Ferguson could not quite hide his displeasure. The first question he was asked after the 3-1 win in Wolfsburg, to his evident annoyance, was whether Owen's hat-trick against the Germans would improve his chances of making Fabio Capello's World Cup squad.
The United manager should not have been altogether surprised. From the moment he exploded into the nation's consciousness in France '98, Owen has always been seen as more about country than club. On Monday, he celebrates his 30th birthday, the age at which a footballer begins to be called a veteran. He is, however, just three years older than Jermain Defoe and 13 months senior to Peter Crouch – and nearly two years younger than Emile Heskey. And as he proved in Germany on Tuesday night, while his pace has diminished, his cunning has not.
"I prefer experienced to older," Owen reflected afterwards. "I am still in my twenties for another week and I am making the most of being 29. It is important to have experience. There were a lot of young lads on the United bench and, if they came on, it was important that we had a bit of control with the experienced players performing well."
This they managed admirably. That United have topped their group would not have been a surprise when the Champions League began in September but it was the manner of their passage into the last 16 that was unusual. The formula is almost invariably that United win big at Old Trafford and allow themselves the odd hiccup abroad. This time their three finest displays came in Istanbul, Moscow and the capital of the German motor industry.
On the flight back to Manchester, one former player speculated that this was one of the few benefits of Cristiano Ronaldo's departure. Away from home, Ronaldo's constant desire to attack meant that Manchester United were sometimes too open and vulnerable to a counter-thrust. This season, they have been notably tighter and more disciplined in Europe.
Owen's last two goals arrived in the last seven minutes, when Ferguson had introduced the pace of Gabriel Obertan against a Wolfsburg side that would long since expected to have swept aside a United side featuring just one specialist defender. Of the young players Ferguson has experimented with in the final three Champions League fixtures, none has stirred the blood more than the 20-year-old from the Parisian suburbs who cost a mere £3m. "He is very quick and tricky as it is," Owen said. "But when he is playing against defenders who are tired, as I've found out when I've come on, you have that little edge."
But for the resolve displayed by the midfielders-turned-defenders Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, Wolfsburg might have taken complete control before Owen began his intervention a minute before the interval. Both are likely to continue against Aston Villa on Saturday evening, although with Nemanja Vidic due to return from illness, Fletcher will move to right-back. And with Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov available again, Owen might find that even a hat-trick against the champions of Germany in their own stadium is not enough to keep his place.
United will be joined in the next round by CSKA Moscow, who will not be expelled even though the defenders Alexei Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich tested positive for a banned stimulant. The substance is on a list of "specified" stimulants, meaning that the potential disqualification penalties in European governing body Uefa's regulations will not be invoked.
Michael's magic: How Owen compares
Michael Owen's goal record this season compares favourably to his rivals for a place in England's World Cup squad.
England strikers' minutes to goal ratios in 2009-10:
Player/Minutes/Goals/Starts per goal
Jermain Defoe 16/14/82.25
Michael Owen 7/8/112.85
Peter Crouch 8/11/149.00
Darren Bent 9/16/154.10
Emile Heskey 2/10/494.50
* Figures for all club and country matches