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Sep 12, 2007

Credit where it's due

ENGLAND 3-0 RUSSIA

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but none are bigger than Michael Owen.

Often maligned and occasionally written off, the diminutive striker who occasionally turns out for a little North East team called Newcastle proved again that he is the crown jewel of an England team now back on track to qualify for Euro 2008 after two wins in five days.

Combining clinical skills from close range and powerful shooting, his four goals in England's last three games have ignited their Euro 2008 qualifying effort and even after all the injuries that have hampered him throughout his career, Owen remains one of the world's great strikers.

As his name rang around a buzzing Wembley Stadium that now feels like home for England, Owen must have been reminded just why he put in all those long painful hours as he overcame the knee injury that ended his World Cup dream in the summer of 2006. He may be rich beyond his wildest dreams, but no money can buy memories like those he carved out for himself against Russia.

At the tender age of 27, this former European Football of the Year is still a class act and it is no coincidence that England have started winning again just as their brilliant No.10 returned to full fitness. Jermain Defoe, Andy Johnson and Alan Smith may all have had their chance, but they only served to highlight the reality that Owen is a couple of levels ahead of them.

It was no surprise to hear England boss Steve McClaren offer this passionate tribute to his match winner. 'Michael was fantastic and it proves that you can never write off a goal scorer of his quality,' he said. 'He looks fitter, sharper and is linking up so well with the whole team now. The partnership with Emile Heskey has really worked over the last two games and I'm delighted for Michael.'

McClaren's men took just six minutes to snatch a lead, as Owen proved himself to be a predator supreme in the box by converting from six yards with typical precision and as the impressive Emile Heskey set him up for a fine second after half and hour, England were in complete control.

If Heskey's contribution was a triumph for his manager's decision to revive his international career, then Owen's double confirmed to all his doubters that he should now be given the credit he deserves as England's most important player.

While Gerrard and Terry are vital cogs for a side that has struggled to find any kind of consistency in recent years, the one enduring factor is Owen's ability to score goals when his country need them most.

Some have argued that Owen should make way for Wayne Rooney when the Manchester United striker is fit and firing, but performances like this and so many before them make such a claim laughable. The truth is that for the last ten years, the striker who has been more synonymous with international football than any club side that have paid his vast wages is a guaranteed source of goals for England.

Even though Owen was the star, McClaren should take some of the credit for his part in this England revival. Had David Beckham, Gary Neville, Frank Lampard and Owen Hargreaves been fit, all four would have played in the two games at Wembley this week, but their replacement have covered themselves in glory both against Israel and now Russia.

The truth is an England side with Micah Richards at right-back, Gareth Barry and Gerrard at the heart of the midfield and, amazingly, Heskey up front has much more verve and zest about it than the model which lost to Germany last month.

Heskey, especially, deserves to remain a part of the squad as he seems to have finally discovered how to get the best out of his natural attributes. He won everything in the air as the Russians struggled to handle him all night long and he received a rapturous standing ovation as he was replaced by Peter Crouch late on.

What now happens to Beckham, Lampard and company when the England team bus leaves its hotel for the next round of Euro 2008 qualifiers remains to be seen as McClaren may be reluctant to have such major personalities hanging around his squad if they are considered to be surplus to requirements.

For what it's worth, my view is that the time has come for Lampard to step aside and hand over the central midfield responsibilities to Gerrard. The Chelsea and Liverpool men have proved time and again that they don't work well together, so McClaren should admit defeat on that one now.

Few would argue that the energetic Richards now looks like a better option than an aging Neville at right-back, but the Beckham question is even more pressing. While Wright-Phillips time will come, McClaren should not allow himself to be swept away by the euphoria of these two victories and remember that the combination of Beckham and Richards down the right flank looked highly promising against Germany last month.

The fact that Beckham is now based in America is a concern, though England should not discard the world's finest set-play exponent just yet.

Even though McClaren was defensive was when asked about the future of his absent stars, his words about the harmony in the camp in the last few days spoke volumes.

'We will reflect on what happens from here,' he says. 'We have a while before the next game and we just have to enjoy it and keep our feet on the ground. I don't have to make decisions on team selection for the next game tonight, but the mood in the camp and the performances these players have produced have been fantastic in the last two games.

'We wanted and needed the six points, but the manner of the performance was especially pleasing. It proves we can win back-to-back games and that's what we will need in tournament football. This is how an England team should play.'

For his part, Russia boss Guus Hiddink had few complaints as his side were well beaten. 'We were given a lesson by England,' claimed the Dutchman. 'My Russian team tried to play and pass throughout the game, but the reality was they had the killer pass and the cutting edge and we didn't. If you look at the chances, we had as many as England, but we couldn't take them.'

If there was an area of concern for England at Wembley it was in the heart of their defence. Russia came close to scoring time and again in the first half an hour as they targeted England's soft centre and even though skipper John Terry was putting his body on the line in typical fashion, long-term side-kick Rio Ferdinand was less impressive and was often missing in action.

Russia had numerous chances during this game and this was one of Rio's occasional sleepy nights that are so infuriating. His late goal sealing England's comfortable victory did not disguise the reality that the Manchester United man needs to be given a good shake from time to time by his manager for club and country.

However, such complaints are something of a sideshow on a night of triumph for McClaren, Owen and England.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Owen
A true national hero, one day Owen will get the credit his achievements in an England shirt deserve.

OUT THE MORONS: The England team still attracts the support of some seriously demented individuals and their chants against retired Irish republicans at Wembley Park station was a blast from this nation's less glorious past. Patriotism is clearly a confusing concept for some who claim to be proud Englishmen.

PA DISASTER: Given the power of the Wembley microphone, the PA announcer proclaimed that it was 'nearly time to book your tickets for Austria' as the Russian players trooped off the pitch. It was typical English arrogance that will inspire Guus Hiddink's men to perform much better when these two sides meet again next month.

FOOD WATCH: The chicken stew on offer was a little dry, while the pecan pie desert means an extra ten minutes will be required on the cross trainer this evening.

ENGLAND VERDICT: There may have been some sitting around me in the press box who were looking forward to writing Steve McClaren's after these two must win Euro 2008 qualifiers in the last few days, but even his biggest critic will have to hold his poison pen at ease after back-back 3-0 wins.

The problem these two wins present for the England boss is handling some selection dilemmas you wouldn't wish on your most hated enemy in a few weeks time. Maybe he will let assistant Terry Venables tell the likes of Lampard, Gary Neville and maybe even Beckham of the bad news.


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