James Lawton: Owen displays edge in class that money just can't buy

Owen reassured United that they may still have a vital edge over their noisy neighbours
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The Independent Football

If Ryan Giggs could produce some of the best of himself for so much of this tumultuous and brilliant football match, was it too much to ask the same of Michael Owen for just a little more than a single second?

No, it was not, he announced as coldly as a gunfighter, and though it will take rather longer to gauge fully the implications for his career at Old Trafford and possibly even England's World Cup campaign, there is one thing we can say about the moment he delivered victory so dramatically.

It was a piece of superbly realised action that his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, will savour for as long as he continues to put himself through the kind of agony of the spirit that three times revisited him yesterday afternoon as Manchester City refused to yield their status as the newest members of the English football elite.

Right up to, that is, the unanswerable evidence that the obituaries posted against the days of Owen's rapier talent may yet be exposed as somewhat premature.

Owen finally put down the City defiance when he ran on to an exquisitely weighted pass from Giggs as play drifted beyond the four minutes of declared stoppage time.

Some of City goalkeeper Shay Given's work had been surreal in its defiance, but now he lacked any means to counter a strike from a player who was proving that the chemistry of conjuring goals, like a fighter's punch, is the last asset to leave those footballers who are born to the trade rather than made for it.

You cannot practise the cutting edge that came to United's assistance when it seemed that City, despite coming into this possibly defining game with half of their blue-chip strike force either suspended or injured, had achieved unlikely but still stunning parity on the back of the maverick Welshman Craig Bellamy.

Bellamy scored two goals of killer opportunism to match the one he produced in the steamrolling of Arsenal a week earlier.

Bellamy extended a biting statement to Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz that there are no guarantees on the City team sheet, a fact underlined by Carlos Tevez's mostly successful running of a gauntlet of boos laid down by the United fans who not so long ago revered something they took to be his extreme loyalty.

This was something for City manager Mark Hughes to hold on to after Owen's decisive intervention, a classically alert, crouching reception of Giggs' pass and then the perfectly sure-footed stride into the delicately placed shot that offered Given not a ghost of a chance.

Yet before gaining even a sliver of comfort, Hughes had to dig his way out of a mountain of irony. While he had been laying in a massive goals armoury at a cost estimated at anywhere between £70m and £100m-plus, Ferguson had run into massive scepticism when signing Owen on a free transfer in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo's £80m departure for Real Madrid.

In mid-afternoon yesterday the master of Old Trafford was, at least for a little while, reanointed as a genius.

Certainly, Ferguson had been re-armed with the argument that though City have bought hugely, and in the cases of such as Adebayor – when he is pursuing football rather than anarchy – Bellamy, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong, with impressive acumen, United retain a depth of ability and experience which may again outstrip all of their rivals – and not just a City which the United manager placed, with more than a hint of a malicious grin, in the noisy neighbour category.

It is hard to know how many outstanding performances Giggs has left, but here he showed so much of his old but still irresistible touch along the left, which has maybe always been the position in which he has been most consistently effective, to encourage a degree of optimism.

Wayne Rooney, who scored an opening goal that seemed to promise a sustained wave of United aggression, had some sublime moments, as did Dimitar Berbatov, and Darren Fletcher's two headed goals represented the hard edge of an always relevant midfield performance.

Hughes' protestations about the generous allocation of added time were both pained and understandable, but they didn't quite obscure the fact that became increasingly evident during the second half. If Bellamy was never less than a seriously waspish threat, United were much the better and more coherent side, at least right up to the moment Rio Ferdinand played a ball lazily into the path of Martin Petrov and then watched, powerlessly, as Bellamy bore down on United's disturbingly uncertain goalkeeper Ben Foster.

Only something utterly remarkable could have added to the drama of an afternoon that had carried not only the city of Manchester but all of English football into a new sense of heightened rivalry, and that Owen produced it when England coach Fabio Capello's No2, Franco Baldini, had slipped out of the stadium, should do little to deflate the player's triumph.

Capello has insisted that the only place Owen can shape his lingering England hopes is out on the field and at the heart of the most serious action. Here, surely, was a most compelling example of a player confronted with some of the greatest pressure of his career, the potential chasm of making or breaking the best chance he will ever have of maintaining himself at the top of the game, and dispersing it with an example of perfect calm.

Capello will, surely, be inconsistent if he does not call up a rerun of the goal that both breathed life back into the ambitions of Michael Owen – and reassured Manchester United that they may still have a vital edge over that increasingly noisy crowd on the other side of the fence.

That last presumption, though, is one United will be wise to make with some reserve. This was a magnificent match, and a blood-stirring win, but it could also prove merely the opening exchange in a ferocious argument – one that could some take some years to resolve, and, on this evidence, each one of them riveting.