Often injured, frequently overlooked, Michael Owen has never appeared to be more than a peripheral figure during his 18 months at Old Trafford. Here, however, the former England forward showed his contribution extends beyond minutes on the pitch and gave a hint of the wider value he brings to Sir Alex Ferguson's squad.
A well-taken header that brought Manchester United back into a game that was in danger of slipping away from them marked Owen's first start since September and hinted that, while his legs may have slowed, his eye for goal remains sharp. Perhaps more significant, however, was his assessment of the progress made by Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, his young strike partner who again offered promise of much greater things to come.
Last week Hernandez and Ryan Giggs were brought on from the bench to inspire a dramatic comeback at Blackpool with the Mexico international scoring as Ferguson's side overcame a two-goal deficit.
On Saturday it took the 58th-minute introduction of Giggs and Nani to change the game before Hernandez's 75th-minute winner took his tally to 11 on his 13th start of the season, a strike rate that stands in stark contrast to that of Wayne Rooney who has scored just three since March and on that basis Hernandez would seem to be making a powerful case for a more regular league start.
Owen, though, has experience in these matters and offered wise counsel. "At the moment he is a really good impact player," he said. "Every time he comes off the bench he looks lively. But there is a difference between starting and coming off the bench. It is much easier coming off the bench.
"We had a strong team out at Blackpool, we are 2-0 down after an hour. You put on a couple of substitutes and people think they changed the game. Giggsy was unbelievable and 'Chicho' was unbelievable, but it is easier to come on. Everyone else is knackered with 20 minutes to go. Likewise tonight, people will probably go away and think the team that started didn't do great and the subs changed it. 'Chicho' will grow into that over time. I am sure he will be a regular starter in the future."
Certainly United had every reason to be grateful for the finishing instincts of Owen and Hernandez after Richard Chaplow's 45th minute goal had given Southampton a deserved lead.
Ferguson's decision to field a collection of fringe players looked ill-advised until a change in personnel and a tactics just before the hour spared them an embarrassing defeat. No blame could be attributed to Anders Lindegaard, however, with the keeper enjoying a solid debut. Lindegaard has a more to prove before he is anointed as Edwin van der Sar's successor in the summer, but you can't fault his keeness. "Everyone wants to play at this club. I am no different," he said. "I dream of playing. I am not here just to sit and pick my nose."
Southampton will return to their League One promotion campaign and tomorrow's trip to Exeter with confidence. "I thought we gave a good account of ourselves which was what we wanted to do," said Chaplow. "We played some good football, but unfortunately it did not come out for us on the day. However, I think we showed we can give anyone a game on our day."
Southampton (4-4-2) Bialkowski; Butterfield, Fonte, Seaborne, Harding; Do Prado (N'Guessan, 81), Schneiderlin, Chaplow (Gobern, 84), Chamberlain; Barnard (Dickson, 73), Lambert. Substitutes not used Davis (gk), Richardson, Martin, Doble. Booked Butterfield
Manchester United (4-4-1-2) Lindegaard; O'Shea, Smalling, Evans, F Da Silva (Brown, 58); Gibson (Giggs, 58), Scholes, Anderson (Nani, 58); Owen; Obertan, Hernandez. Substitutes not used Kuszczak (gk), Berbatov, Rooney, Bebe.
Man of the match Scholes
Referee M Atkinson (W Yorkshire)
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