Strike duo struggle to find their feet

New front line shows little sign of cohesion as the German defence stand firm
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Andy Cole and Michael Owen, the England manager had said, were "unarguably" the two best strikers in the country, and their pace would be a threat to any defence. Alas, pace, like patriotism, is not enough, and whether they can function in tandem at international level against high-class covering and defending is not a lot clearer following the events of yesterday afternoon.

Andy Cole and Michael Owen, the England manager had said, were "unarguably" the two best strikers in the country, and their pace would be a threat to any defence. Alas, pace, like patriotism, is not enough, and whether they can function in tandem at international level against high-class covering and defending is not a lot clearer following the events of yesterday afternoon.

Cole was marginally the brighter, yet still managed only one attempt at scoring his first international goal. That was one more than Owen, who found the German back-three tenacious enough to prevent him having even a sniff anywhere near the most dangerous area of the pitch.

No one could complain about the form of either man going into the game; 14 goals between them already this season told a tale of two players on top of their game.

Cole's hat-trick against Anderlecht in the Champions' League brought a rare full-faced smile, as well as breaking Denis Law's European record; Owen's equaliser in Paris last month contributed to a run of seven goals in four games.

"I don't see any reason why it can't be a fantastic combination," Kevin Keegan had said. All the more surprising to discover then, that the 12 minutes against France after Owen came on was the sum of their time together before yesterday's game.

An even more unexpected statistic was that Owen had not played a full 90 minutes for his country for exactly two years. "I'm playing as well as ever," he insisted in the build-up, as well as emphasising how determined he was to become the natural successor to Alan Shearer - an ambition presumably shared by Cole.

For a depressingly long time, however, the reality was altogether more downbeat. Far from getting the opportunity to demonstrate how well they could function as a partnership, the two components of it found that just getting possession was hard enough. Owen, given an early whack by Mehmet Scholl, reached half-time without having had the opportunity to make a significant contribution of any sort.

Cole, ever his own man, had declined to join most of the squad to warm up on the pitch, and may have been taken by surprise when the first pass in his direction skidded away from him. And by the time Hamann had put Germany ahead, he had done little more than run offside three times, earning a bawling reprimand from Tony Adams. If the incidents in which both strikers put the ball into touch summed up England's fortunes in the first quarter of the game, Cole's yellow card for lunging at Scholl illustrated the frustration he must have been feeling.

From then on, the United man was as close as anyone to encouraging the crowd and the nation, though that did not necessarily amount to much. Fed by Graeme Le Saux, he turned well past Marko Rehmer, before being held, allowing David Beckham a free-kick that he was unable to make as much of as Hamann had done. Sadly, England's first real threat on goal came after fully 40 minutes of play, as Adams' glancing header from a Le Saux's cross was held comfortably by Oliver Kahn.

Lack of achievement had to be set against lack of service. Although Le Saux had managed a few crosses from the left wing, the equivalent from the other flank was mysteriously absent, as neither Gary Neville nor David Beckham could muster up the requisite width or penetration. Indeed, from Cole's point of view, the failure to achieve any productive benefit from the Old Trafford axis down that side of the pitch, also featuring Paul Scholes in the inside-right channel, was one of many disappointing aspects to the afternoon.

With Neville's removal at the interval, Kieron Dyer's entrance and Beckham's switch inside, the axis changed, and for the better. Both strikers seemed to appreciate Dyer's willingness to run inside with the ball, giving them the chance for extra movement off it.

Only two minutes into the second half, there was a promising link in which Owen fed the Newcastle wing-back for a low cross that Cole was only just beaten to.

The Liverpool man's moment might have come after 70 minutes. Beckham's long pass offered him a chase in which he appeared to be favourite, but a combination of the wet conditions and a poor first touch enabled Rehmer to play catch-up.

By the last 15 minutes, both men must have had an eye on the bench and wondered whether their number would be up. With Le Saux feeling a lack of match-fitness and Beckham taking a knock, they were left together to the bitter end, but couldn't provide the moment of inspiration, opportunism or good fortune that England so desperately needed.

Comments