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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK
Rejuvenated Owen boosts England
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Wembley

Michael Owen
Owen is now only nine behind Sir Bobby Charlton's England scoring record
Michael Owen's desire to make up for lost time has ignited England's Euro 2008 qualifying campaign - and given coach Steve McClaren the spearhead he has sorely missed since succeeding Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Owen's career for both club and country was shrouded in uncertainty when he suffered an horrific knee injury only two minutes into a World Cup clash with Sweden in Cologne in June 2006.

Those of us who were in the RheinEnergie Stadion on a stifling summer night will recall the gasp of horror that went around the arena when Owen's collapse was shown on the big screens.

Even for a man with a history of overcoming serious injury, this looked to be one setback too many as his knee gave way beneath him near the touchline.

The sight of the stricken Owen trying desperately, but failing, to get to his feet and play on was a symbolic image of England's campaign.

And Owen's tentative performance against Germany at Wembley recently drew knowing glances from those who thought his England future was firmly behind him.

How different it all was against Russia.

Owen demonstrated at Wembley that only a fool writes off the most reliable and ruthless striker England have had in the last decade.

He has had his fitness queried, his desire questioned when he increased his interest in horse racing, and his ability to play at the level debated as he travelled a long, lonely road to recovery at Newcastle.

Owen delivered answers to all of those questions in two moments of brilliance to build the platform for the most important win of McClaren's England reign.

He demonstrated the predatory penalty box instincts when he brilliantly got a difficult ball out from under his feet to place a perfect finish after six minutes.

And he showed the finisher's flourish to bury Emile Heskey's header high into the net with a superb volley before half-time. No second thoughts, just doing what comes naturally to Owen.

Owen's celebration was low-key, simply suggesting it was business as usual and England's main man was back.

It was also confirmation that Owen, after being robbed of almost two years of his career since joining Newcastle, had reclaimed his status as England's major source of goals.

Owen has undergone a gruelling fitness regime to return to action, almost a year of hard slog that gave the lie that any of his appetite for the game had diminished.

McClaren said: "You have to say it again. You never, ever write off Michael Owen.

"We said recently that he was going to be a big player for us. He has scored in his last four matches for Newcastle and England and he looks fitter and sharper with every passing game.

"But it wasn't just his goals, it was his all-round play. He is a very, very good player and his partnership with Emile Heskey has worked really well in the last two games."

Owen may have lost the blistering pace of old, a fact he will admit himself, but he still carries enough pace to trouble most defences.

He is cute in and around the box, and his game is more complete than many realise as he has matured.

And, as Russia found to their cost, you cannot teach his most crucial quality. Namely the natural scoring ability and the priceless asset of being in the right place at the right time.

It's a gift and Owen makes the most of it. And it is an asset that will play a major part in the plans to reach, and then make a serious mark on, Euro 2008.

He was helped in no small measure by the selfless Heskey, who put himself about in the way a striker of his physique should, enabling Owen to loiter with intent.

Owen's confidence is growing visibly with every game, and if Sam Allardyce's fitness regime is as outstanding as those in football suggest it is, then England may have an even sleeker version of their main striker next time out.

Newcastle will also be the beneficiaries, especially as doubts over his fitness persuaded any of the big four against activating a 9.5m escape clause in his contract this summer.

Owen's quality in front of goal made that look like small change against Russia - and it is to England and McClaren's eternal good fortune that they get him for free.

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