EVER since a team of reserves and survivors from the Munich Disaster fought their way to the 1958 FA Cup final, Manchester United have been a club most inspired when their backs have been pushed most firmly against a wall.
This result was not on that scale of heroism, but that a side deprived of 13 first-choice players and with just one regular defender should overcome the champions of Germany on their own sodden turf was remarkable.
That Michael Owen should be the man to have turned the night on its head was equally so. When he arrived at Old Trafford in the summer he was depicted as a footballer whose best days had been left behind in Germany when his knee gave way in Cologne during his brief, disastrous appearance at the 2006 World Cup finals. His contribution to Newcastle's struggle against relegation last season had been negligible.
He is a few days short of his 30th birthday but last night he scored his goals as he has always done – from close range and with an assassin's chilling ruthlessness. This was his third hat-trick in the Champions League and his second in Germany. The famous one in Munich eight years ago reinforced his image as one of the finest and most natural strikers England have ever produced. The one for Liverpool in Moscow, against Spartak seven years ago, may have been part of a 3-1 win but it was ultimately not enough to see Gérard Houllier's side through to the knockout stages. That rather sums up Owen's career outside these shores.
There was no doubt, even before last night's contest, that Manchester United would reach the last 16 but most, glancing through Sir Alex Ferguson's squad, might have assumed that Wolfsburg would deny them the satisfaction of topping their group.
Some of United's defending was understandably fallible. However, nothing Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, their improbable centre-halves, managed was as sloppy as the way in which, a minute before the interval, Wolfsburg, whose defence of their Bundesliga title has been undermined by an inability to keep a clean sheet, let Nani cross. Owen, as he has done for more than a decade, slipped his marker to head home at the far post.
Wolfsburg is a one-company town and that company is Volkswagen, whose giant red chimneys dominate the skyline in this the heartland of Germany. The football team they sponsor has spluttered through the last two rounds of Champions League games, losing a lead and then the match to CSKA Moscow, and then squandering a succession of chances last night before Gabriel Obertan skated past a feeble challenge to square the ball for Owen with predictable results.
The stadium knew then that the game was up and when Owen broke away to chip the goalkeeper Diego Benaglio for his hat-trick the issue was settled beyond dispute. Wolfsburg had more possession, more chances and forced vastly more corners, but they lacked United's ability to guts it out at the back and Owen's ability to finish.
Bayern Munich's victory at Juventus may have ensured the old order in German football endured but the Wolves, who needed only to match CSKA's result against Besiktas to join them in the knockout stages, are poised for the Europa League unless, following the Russian side's positive drugs tests, Uefa's disciplinary committee rules otherwise next week.
Not since he was given his first managerial job, at East Stirling to be told he had a squad of eight – "You need 11 to start a game of football, chairman" was his reply – has Ferguson faced such a dearth of players. This was as triumphant a response as he could have expected. Only twice did they crack; once when Carrick attempted to tackle Makoto Hasebe as he burst through into the area and mistimed by a fraction. From the stands, it appeared a beautiful interception. Television replays confirmed a penalty.
Had Wolfsburg broken through, United's makeshift defence might have caved in completely. Two free headers whistled over the bar and a shot from Hasebe was turned over it by Tomasz Kuszczak but not until 11 minutes into the second half, when a cross from Marcel Schafer was headed home by Edin Dzeko, did the breakthrough arrive. Then Manchester United would have expected a siege – what they got was something altogether more extraordinary.
Wolfsburg (4-3-1-2): Benaglio; Riether, Ricardo Costa, Barzagli, Schafer; Hasebe (Ziani, 72), Josue, Gentner; Misimovic; Dzeko, Grafite (Dejagah, 72). Substitutes not used: Lenz (g), Simunek, Johnson, Madlung, Pekarik.
Manchester United (3-5-2): Kuszczak; Fletcher, Carrick, Evra; Park, Anderson, Scholes, Gibson, Nani (Valencia, 74); Welbeck (Obertan, 74), Owen. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Eikrem, James, Gill, Stewart.
Referee: B Kuipers (Netherlands).
Results: Besiktas 0 Manchester United 1, Wolfsburg 3 CSKA Moscow 1; Manchester United 2 Wolfsburg 1, CSKA Moscow 2 Besiktas 1; CSKA Moscow 0 Manchester United 1, Wolfsburg 0 Besiktas 0; Manchester United 3 CSKA Moscow 3, Besiktas 0 Wolfsburg 3; Manchester United 0 Besiktas 1, CSKA Moscow 2 Wolfsburg 1; Besiktas 1 CSKA Moscow 2, Wolfsburg 1 Manchester United 3.
Manchester United's possible round of 16 opponents: Bayern Munich, Milan, Porto, Fiorentina/Lyons, Barcelona/ Internazionale/Rubin Kazan/Dynamo Kiev, Seville/Unirea Urziceni/Stuttgart, Olympiakos/Standard Liège.
Last 16 qualifiers: Bordeaux, Bayern Munich, Manchester Utd, CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Milan, Chelsea, Porto, Fiorentina, Lyons, Seville, Arsenal.
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