Real fight to advance as Owen opens his account

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The Independent Football

Michael Owen's first goal for Real Madrid helped him hit back at his critics - but those with faith in the striker see it as the start of a new era.

The 24-year-old scored the winner for the Spanish side in their Champions' League Group B game against Dynamo Kiev on Tuesday night - his first goal since an £8m move to the Bernabeu in August.

Form and fitness have troubled Owen since leaving Anfield and his first-team opportunities seemed limited under the new coach, Mariano Garcia Remon. But the England striker responded with a winner while captaining his country in Azerbaijan last week and followed it up last night when he slid in to get on the end of Ronaldo's cross after 35 minutes.

Owen said scoring his first goal for the club had taken a weight off his shoulders. "It settled me right down," he said. "I have been waiting for that moment since I came here. The one thing I have been lacking was a goal and it was a relief to get off the mark.

"The club president [Florentino Perez] came into the dressing-room at the end of the game, shook my hand and said 'let that be the first of many'."

The England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, kept faith in Owen when there were calls to drop him for the World Cup qualifier with Wales - and the Swede was not surprised when his main striker finally got on the scoresheet for Madrid.

Eriksson backed Owen to score for his new team, given the attitude the centre-forward had shown in training with England. "It was very good to see him play and score," said Eriksson. "It was an absolutely typical goal for him to score. He was quick, made a good run and finished cleverly.

"Last week in training and in the matches he was as fit and lively as I've seen him for a long time. He did well for us in both matches and in the practice sessions you could see at once that he was very fresh and very hungry to play. He's in good shape and his goal was very important for both him and for Real of course."

Despite his goalscoring record, Owen has faced critics since he broke into the Liverpool team in 1997. Glenn Hoddle famously denounced him as "not a natural goalscorer" and Owen has had his temperament, heading ability, hamstrings and gambling habits put under intense scrutiny.

"Whenever people doubt him, they should just pick up a record book and see what he has done," Eriksson added. "The figures show everything. At 24 he still has a great career ahead of him. He is a striker, so this goal will mean confidence.

"When strikers score an important goal as this one was, their confidence goes up immediately," he said.

Real Madrid's sporting director, Emilio Butragueno, supported Owen during his difficult start in Madrid and hopes his striker can now concentrate on competing for a regular starting place.

"Owen has scored a very important goal," Butragueno said. "The team has suffered lately in front of goal, but these three points put us in a good situation. I am very happy for him because there have been many comments made in the past few days. I think this will no doubt help him in the future."

Owen's hopes of a regular place in the side are boosted by a new formation deploying Raul in midfield and an apparent willingness to allow Fernando Morientes to depart on loan to Monaco again. Furthermore, Owen's team-mates are aware of the time it takes to settle in a new country - even for triple Fiafa World Player of the Year winner Zinedine Zidane.

The Real full-back Michel Salgado added: "The best thing that can happen to a striker is to score goals. Owen is very shy and he's a player who needs to score because he has to get accustomed to this team's play and that takes time for a player to adapt. Even Zidane had to go through this."

Remon added: "I was really happy with Michael Owen's performance because we needed a lot of mobility in attack and he provided this. He's improving."

Remon said he was confident of qualifying for the knock-out phase. "I think Dynamo are the strongest of all the teams we have played but I am sure we will keep on improving. We will end up qualifying from what is a very difficult group, but we will have to fight until the very end because all three sides have the same chance of making it through."

Last night's result means that Dynamo, Real and Leverkusen, who came from a goal down to beat Roma 3-1 at home, all have six points at the top of Group B. Real face the Dynamo again on 3 November.

Butragueno said: "We have achieved our aim of winning our two home games following our defeat in Leverkusen. But we now have to make sure we win in Ukraine if at all possible."