Owen hat-trick sees United finish top

Wolfsburg 1 Manchester United 3

Michael Owen scored a hat-trick tonight as Manchester United made light of their injury woes to record a memorable win over German champions Wolfsburg.

A measure of United's achievement was that it represented only a third win in 10 attempts against German opposition in Europe. The fact they did it with over a dozen key men missing made the feat all the more remarkable.

It was Owen's first three-timer since he joined the Old Trafford side in the summer - and his first for anyone since 2005 - and will undoubtedly go down as one of his finest on a night when United had their backs against the wall.

The result confirms a seeding in the knockout round draw a week on Friday which in itself does not guarantee easier opposition but at least ensured Old Trafford will host a second leg rather than a first.

An already complicated qualification picture had become even more murky following confirmation earlier in the day that two CSKA Moscow players had tested positive for banned substances following their meeting with United at Old Trafford last month.

As it left the Russians facing expulsion at a UEFA disciplinary hearing on December 17, it raised the possibility of United having to appeal for their top-spot status, or Wolfsburg begging to maintain interest in the competition until the day before the last round of 16 draw.

Alex Ferguson knew the best way of avoiding such anxiety was to win.

Yet to achieve that would be a monumental feat given he landed in Germany without 14 recognised senior players, including eight defenders.

United had prospered from weakened situations before. But never had they been so badly depleted.

Michael Carrick was handed a sweeper's role, with Darren Fletcher and Patrice Evra flanking the England international as Ferguson abandoned his traditional back four.

As the highly-rated Edin Dzeko was part of Wolfsburg's strikeforce, statisticians were busy spending their pre-match discussions wondering if United were set for a record European defeat.

As it turned out, a repeat of their five goal hammering by Sporting Lisbon in 1964, or even a 4-0 spanking by Barcelona in the early Champions League days when the controversial 'three foreigners' rule handicapped a Red Devils side good enough to have won the domestic double the previous spring, never looked likely.

Zvjezdan Misimovic headed a good chance over and Tomasz Kuszczak made a couple of decent saves to deny Makoto Hasebe.

But with a bit of good fortune, namely when Carrick slid in on Hasebe and appeared to bring the wide-man down inside the area without making contact with the ball, and a lot of perseverance, they survived without conceding a goal.

A scoreless opening period would have been well received by Ferguson. Owen's goal made it a perfect opening 45 minutes.

The former Liverpool star has probably not had the impact hoped for when he joined United in the summer and his hopes of going to the World Cup next summer appear to have receded to non-existent.

But Owen remains a master at finding space, and when Nani drifted over a cross from the left 60 seconds before the break, he had evaded the home defence for long enough to give him time to steer his header into the far corner.

But the job was only half done and Ferguson must have known a Wolfsburg bombardment was coming.

Having attacked mostly down their right - trying to expose the least defensively competent wing-back, Nani - Wolfsburg changed their point of attack, knowing Park Ji-sung was not being protected by an orthodox defender.

Marcel Schafer had already fizzed over one cross from the left that Carrick had smashed clear when he had another go at picking out Dzeko.

The Bosnian was astute enough to get between Carrick and Evra, so when the cross arrived perfectly in the centre of the six-yard box, Dzeko rose unchallenged to send a textbook header flying past Kuszczak.

With over half an hour remaining, it appeared United's defensive heroics would be in vain.

But some sturdy defending kept Wolfsburg at bay and when substitute Gabriel Obertan glided into the home box and drilled a cross to the far post, Owen was waiting to tap home.

The qualification picture was suddenly, for United at any rate, much clearer.

Owen's third, when he streaked through after Wolfsburg had wasted their final chance, merely added a notable footnote.

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