Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Manchester United's final triumph turns sour for Owen

Michael Owen strode out for his first cup final at Wembley and after 13 minutes slotted home one of those instinctive goals which used to epitomise his career.

No doubt he looked up at England manager Fabio Capello in the Wembley stands as if to say that "is what you need in South Africa in the summer?".

Then he did what Owen has done so often over the past six years. He broke down. Limped off with another injury. Another strain of the tautest hamstrings in the English game.

Walked down the tunnel before half-time knowing that one of Capello's abiding images of the 2010 Carling Cup final would not be of Owen rippling the Aston Villa net.

Instead it would be of Owen grimacing and clutching his fragile body. A World Cup place all but gone.

Of course, Owen's presence at the World Cup finals had always been a long shot considering he has been little more than a sideshow during Capello's reign.

The compensation for United fans was that Owen's going brought Wayne Rooney, suffering a touch of flu, off the bench and on to the stage.

The effect was a bit like Clark Kent emerging from a phone box after discarding his suit and spectacles.

It was not that Rooney did anything particularly spectacular. Indeed at first he struggled to influence proceedings.

Until, that is, he rose to head home Antonio Valencia's cross after 74 minutes. It was his fifth consecutive headed goal. Seven out of his last eight goals have been headers.

Quite a statistic that when you consider he had scored only four headed goals in his career before this season.

That is the wonder of Wayne and why this final will go down as the Rooney final. As the final, too, which gave a national forum to the green and gold crusade against the debt at Old Trafford. The obligatory 'Glazer Out' banner also fluttered high in the stands.

But it was a fine final. A final between two teams prepared to slug it out, to back their attacking talent and their ability to score goals.

Consequently, it was open, end-to-end and at times richly entertaining.

And football needed that. Heaven knows, it has not been one of the sport's finest months. Not with John Terry losing the England captaincy amid salacious headlines. Not with Ashley Cole adding to the sleaze and Portsmouth becoming the most glaring example of how not run a football club.

It was given the most dramatic of openings inside four minutes when Nemanja Vidic brought down the galloping Gabriel Agbonlahor in the penalty area with the clumsiest of tackles.

James Milner opened the scoring from the penalty spot, but it was not referee Phil Dowd's finest moment.

Vidic was clearly the last man. It was a blatant scoring opportunity and while no-one wants to see a player sent off so early in the season's first showpiece, Vidic should at least have had a yellow card.

It was a decision which did not appear to do much for Villa manager Martin O'Neill's blood pressure.

The United equaliser came after 13 minutes, Villa's Richard Dunne tangling with Dimitar Berbatov and the ball breaking to Owen, who slotted home from 15 yards. Just like old times.

At that point Capello must have wondered. Was he worth a punt?

It would have been a fleeting thought. There were others more deserving of his urgent attention.

Such as Villa's Stephen Warnock who, despite the odd slip, equipped himself well in the left-back slot which has become Capello's biggest headache.

Milner, too, had a fine game and Agbonlahor, not in Wednesday's squad against Egypt, would also have earned a 'Don't forget' memo in the England manager's notebook.

But when United's players went up to receive the fourth League Cup won under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson, England's past and present and perhaps their glorious future was there for all to see.

Owen was the man in the suit, changed and limping. The past.

Rooney was the goal-scorer supreme, the man who commands England's World Cup hopes and dreams. The future.

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