James Lawton: Owen brilliance the cure for England's sickness

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The Independent Football

For so long Michael Owen was desperate for a spark. Now he is on fire and England, for a little while at least, are no longer the chronically sick man of international football.

It's an absurdly simple equation but that's how it works often. Doubt can corrode the hopes of any team, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the front line, where greed and self-belief are the classic companions.

Owen's first goal in the seventh minute was extraordinary in that it was almost a guided tour of the tortured psyche of a striker in a crisis – albeit one that had been eased by a spectacular goal against Israel a few days earlier.

The ball came to him perfectly in the box and the challenge of the Russian defender Alexei Berezutskiy never looked likely to arrive in time. However, twice against Israel Owen had failed to pull the trigger in equally favourable circumstances and again he seemed like a man straddling football's versions of heaven and hell.

This time, however, the Owen so many believed might have been carried by a stream of injuries across the line that separates the top practitioners of football's hardest business from the best of their past, landed on the right side of the great divide.

His shot hit a post before flying in the net but that didn't begin to matter. It was his 39th goal for England and and when it was followed by his 40th 24 minutes later you could see the glint of that smile which came like a sunrise in St-Etienne when, at the age of 18, he ran beyond the Argentina defence for a goal which some believed might just carry England to the 1998 World Cup final in Paris.

No such fantasy could touch Owen – or his team-mates – now. He is too old for dreaming and England's football team have crashed into anti-climax too many times since he he made that astonishing run through the French night.

But Owen, who is now just nine goals short of Sir Bobby Charlton's England goalscoring record of 49, is no less exhilarated by the fact that he has played such a huge part in rescuing what seemed like England's misgotten campaign to qualify for next year's European championships.

Rescue might be putting it a little strongly, but there is unquestionably some strong red blood pouring through their veins again. This was confirmed when Rio Ferdinand, after some clever approach play by the again impressive Gareth Barry, and an Owen who now looked ready to walk across the Tyne when he returns to duty with Newcastle United, scored England's third goal.

On the touchline the England coach, Steve McClaren, who would have been a dead man walking along the touchline if his team had lost – and yielded their last serious chance of staying in the qualifying race behind Croatia and Russia – was enjoying his first authentic zone of comfort since he succeeded Sven Goran Eriksson so controversially.

McClaren, some argued, was facing the cruellest denouement at the hands of the coach who so many believed should have been given the job in his place.

Whether indeed Russia's Guus Hiddink (left) should have got the nod is a question that at the very least needs to await the return game in Moscow next month, but unquestionably this was the England man's night.

The problem is that if Hiddink made a critical mistake last night by not starting with his two most dangerous attackers, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Vladimir Bystrov, and allowing England to build on the confidence that came with victory over Israel, he is a man who has a superb record in making teams. In coaching he is the patron saint of over-achievement, which is precisely the opposite of England's tendency for the last 40-odd years.

Again there is an argument – which some no doubt will consider churlish in the light of a second successive 3-0 win against a team above them in the qualifying group – that England's supreme achievement in the last few days has been to find a vein of gold in what was supposed to be injury havoc.

Without David Beckham, England found life and energy on the right in Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Without Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey, one of football's ultimate yesterday men, came back through the mists of time and gave Owen extraordinary support in his return to full potency.

Then there has been the unscheduled break-up of the midfield partnership that refused to work, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. It has given Barry the chance to prove that playing midfield effectively is about craft as much as spectacle.

Owen, though, was the great gift last night. He re-lit some of the best of his youth – and may just have given his team a little nudge into the future.

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