Predator Owen sets sights on record

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The Independent Football

When the BBC ran the footage of Michael Owen turning away to celebrate Chris Baird's own goal against Northern Ireland as if it was his own, the voice of spluttering indignation you could hear on your television sets was that of Gary Lineker. He had good reason to protest because, with every England goal the Real Madrid striker scores, he edges closer to that magical total of 50 that eluded both Sir Bobby Charlton and Lineker himself.

When the BBC ran the footage of Michael Owen turning away to celebrate Chris Baird's own goal against Northern Ireland as if it was his own, the voice of spluttering indignation you could hear on your television sets was that of Gary Lineker. He had good reason to protest because, with every England goal the Real Madrid striker scores, he edges closer to that magical total of 50 that eluded both Sir Bobby Charlton and Lineker himself.

If ever there was a night that Owen could hope to add to his 29 goals, and get a little nearer to the record holder Charlton (49) and Lineker (48), it will surely be tomorrow evening when he faces not just Azerbaijan but, according to coach Carlos Alberto, a weakened Azerbaijan team. When that fact was put to the striker by a plump member of the Press yesterday he could scarcely believe it. Sizing up his questioner for a second he asked: "So are you playing then?"

The devil in Owen that made him instinctively claim Baird's own goal on Saturday tells you everything about how much the striker wants to be the man who breaks Charlton's England record, set over 106 games. On 68 caps already, Owen, 25, tuts at mention of the great international milestone but even he could not suppress his interest in being told that if he scores two tonight he will claim the record for competitive matches, surpassing the total of 21 scored by Lineker.

"I have always thought if I stay fit and in form, I will manage to score a good few goals for England," Owen said. "But still being in the twenties, and the record being 49, I know what is required - 49 is the target. Until I get 40-odd, if I am lucky, then I won't be looking at it with too much seriousness."

Two goals tomorrow will take him up four places to fourth, passing on the way some of England's most famous centre-forwards. His old strike partner Alan Shearer finished on 30, as did Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse, as well as the slightly less-celebrated, but no less prolific, Vivian Woodward who took only 23 matches to score 29 between 1903 and 1911. "I saw that in the programme," admitted Owen and he could yet have a crack at another England landmark: Malcolm Macdonald's five against Cyprus in 1975, the record for a single game.

While tomorrow should be a chance to score more than the single goal that decided the match in Azerbaijan in October, even the promise of a record will not disguise the fact that he still has a problem breaking into his club side. Owen's defence is that he has played more than people give him credit for - he estimates that, including internationals, he will break the 50-game barrier this season - and that Sven Goran Eriksson has told him it is not a problem.

"I spoke to the manager the first day we joined up and he just asked me how I was feeling, how it was going in Madrid," Owen said. "He watches most of the games on the television. People see me sitting on the bench a couple of times, and think 'He never plays', but I have played more than 40 games for club and country, more than half of them have been starts. I am going to play over more than 50 games. In anyone's book that is good.

"I am not pretending to you that I don't want to play more. On the flip-side, I went there and everyone said I was fourth choice, the Spanish press wrote me off after a couple of games, so to have scored a lot of goals, I am very pleased. From when I was joining up here in Manchester last time, I am very pleased the with way it has gone".

In what has become a regular theme this season he gave a polite answer to the latest advances from Graeme Souness and Newcastle, but said that observers should not assume that just because he was not in the Real side all the time he was unhappy. It was a timely riposte after his club captain Raul said at the weekend - with reference to Owen - that Real did not need players who did not want to play for the club.

"I am not trying to pretend to you I am delighted sitting on the bench - even once," Owen said. "But let's not make a mountain of the molehill. It's as if I have not played all season, come over here, play for England, and then go back and sit on the bench. It will be over 50 games. If I played every game this season, and next, people will say we are desperate for a four-week break to give him a rest. What is the perfect solution?"

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