Sir Alex Ferguson said this month that Michael Owen would have to wait until the grind of the season kicked in, and the squad was stretched, before he would start games for Manchester United. That sounds very much like the match-winning derby hero can get himself ready to play against Wolves in the Carling Cup tomorrow night.
As Manchester took a deep breath yesterday and reflected on Sunday's mayhem at Old Trafford, there was the danger of some hasty conclusions being reached. Every Owen goal for United – especially one as significant as Sunday's – will make some people believe that an England recall for the country's most prolific current striker is on the cards.
If anything, the mood in the Italian camp is no softer on Owen. They want to see him start matches, then score goals consistently before they will consider him and there is not time for Owen to do that in the five days before Fabio Capello names his England squad to play Ukraine. The Italian and his assistants are bemused by the national obsession with a striker who, they point out, hardly ever plays.
Credit where it is due. Owen's goal on Sunday was a vintage finish but it will never be enough to make it into a World Cup squad as a substitute. Like David Beckham, Owen faces the fundamental problem that the 20 outfield players of a World Cup squad are picked on the basis that one is first choice and the other is an understudy for the position. Owen and Beckham cannot play 90 minutes, every five days, should the first-choice selections in their position be injured.
On that basis it would be remarkable if either of them were to make it to South Africa next summer but it is reasonable to ask just how many games Owen can expect to play this season. Of the five recognised strikers that Ferguson started the season with, Federico Macheda has disappeared entirely from Old Trafford. He is still playing for United's reserves but is yet to even feature on the substitutes' bench for United this season with Ferguson understood to be unimpressed by his prodigy's attitude.
Danny Welbeck has been on the bench only once and has not made a single appearance and otherwise Ferguson has played Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, Rooney with Owen or a variation involving Rooney and Nani. Given his lack of options, the feeling with England is not when Owen will play, but how little he has played until now in a team in which Ferguson only seems to believe he has three strikers worth considering.
One curious theory is that Ferguson may yet see Berbatov and Owen as a potential pairing, the only combination of the three that he has not tried this season. That would mean Rooney playing left midfield which Ferguson has promised he would not do this season. He has said that Rooney will play as an orthodox striker and there is a world of difference from playing on the left side in a four-man midfield, to last season's five-man midfield.
What Ferguson does with Owen this season will be watched closely by Capello. They already have their view of him; it is as a Rooney understudy and currently the queue to fill that role has Jermain Defoe at its head and Gabriel Agbonlahor just behind him. Owen also finds himself behind Darren Bent and possibly even Theo Walcott if Capello decides to consider him as a striker rather than a winger.
United have given Owen's career a final act he must have thought he would never have. Sunday's goal against Manchester City will have given him the belief that he can still do it at the very highest level. What he really needs now is for Ferguson to find a way of playing him with Rooney, a combination which failed in United's only defeat of the season at Burnley. An impact substitute's role might be enough for Ferguson, but not for Capello.
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