Friday, September 14, 2007

Owen brace blows Russia away

Owen brace blows Russia away.
Back to back 3-0 victories have lifted the pressure off England boss Steve McClaren, who not long ago looked as lame a duck as had ever been handed the poisoned chalice of coach of the three lions.

A second Michael Owen brace in five days dispatched the much-vaunted Russia at Wembley in front of 86,000 fans and propelled England into second in Group E of the Euro 2008 qualifiers, three points behind Croatia, who terrorized Andorra 6-0 in their capital Andorra La Vella at the same time.

England's comfortable win is a severe blow to the reputation of Russia coach Guus Hiddink as a miracle worker and a fillip to the Football Association, who passed the much-travelled Dutchman over in the search for the England manager to succeed Sven-Goran Eriksson, a job which eventually went to Hiddink’s conqueror on Wednesday, McClaren.

The Emile Heskey-Owen combination worked wonders on the night, rolling back the years to 2001 and the 5-1 mauling of Germany in Munich's Olympia Stadion in a World Cup qualifier. Rumours that Owen persuaded his coach to recall Heskey from the wilderness appear to be true but the Newcastle striker has been vindicated after these two convincing performances.

On the night, Russia looked the more elegant and technical side but succumbed to the more aggressive style of the hosts, who snatched the lead in the 7th minute, added to it in the 31st and made the game safe six minutes from time. Hiddink’s side enjoyed long spells of possession but lacked bite up front. Diniyar Bilayetdinov’s first half drive which drew a diving one-handed save from Paul Robinson was their one and only close chance of the evening.

England were flattered. The striking partnership consisted of a 29 year-old international exile and a star of World Cup 1998 popularly supposed to be past his best a decade on. Joe Cole ran into further cul de sacs, Shaun Wright-Phillips fluffed more final balls and England failed to find any fluency, but a win is a win is a win.
The two nations square up again in Moscow on the 17th of October on artificial Field Turf at the Luzhniki Stadium.

Apart from Russia, the other big losers on Wednesday in Europe were World Cup finalists France, who fell 1-0 to Scotland in Paris and now trail both the Scots and Italy in Group B, the Republic of Ireland, whose hopes of qualification were all but ended by a 1-0 loss to the Czech Republic in Prague, and near neighbours Northern Ireland, whose express train start has now been well and truly derailed after successive defeats to Group F strugglers Latvia and Iceland.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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