Messiah grateful for his Saint Michael

IT is almost 10 years since Michael Owen announced himself as a major player on football’s international stage with a wonderful World Cup goal against Argentina in St Etienne.

This week, the Newcastle forward returns to the country where he was first able to showcase a sublime talent in front of a mesmerised global audience.

However, a decade is a long time in football and under England coach Fabio Capello, Owen’s role against France in Wednesday’s friendly would appear to be that of a fringe player, rather than a key figure.

According to United manager, Kevin Keegan, a proven predator with two goals in two games deserves more. “Michael is fighting his way back from a bad injury but doing it all in the right way, working hard and doing extra training, and I think you’re seeing him now absolutely at his peak.

“You could see with his goals against Birmingham and Fulham that his reactions are lightning-quick and he still has that pace. He’s playing a bit deeper but still getting chances and still scoring goals.”

Owen’s goal against Fulham, eight minutes from the end of an entertaining scrap, confirmed that Keegan would be able to celebrate the first win, at the 10th attempt, of his second spell as Newcastle manager.

The man the Toon Army dubbed the Messiah cannot point to too many positives as he surveys a shameful record of one victory from nine league games, and yet his captain’s goalscoring ratio is one of them.

Owen has scored four of the five goals the Magpies have converted under their new manager and Keegan has already urged his club’s board to open contract negotiations which could keep this season’s leading marksman at St James’s Park beyond next season.

“I’ve already started to say to the club that we should be talking to Michael now,” confirmed Keegan.

“It’s a matter of urgency because I don’t think that, whatever finances are there in the summer, we’ll go out and get a player who is any better than Michael Owen. I’ll do everything I can to keep him and the time to talk to him is now.”

Contrary to Keegan’s optimism, Owen is not quite back to his destructive best. Before half-time, the Fulham goalkeeper, Kasey Keller, was able to parry one long distance drive past his left-hand post and gather a weak header from point blank range with ease.

Owen cupped his head in his hands after the latter miss, perhaps fearing a repeat of Newcastle’s previous home game against Blackburn Rovers when his profligacy cost United all three points. Fortunately for the 28-year-old, Fulham are no Blackburn. Having responded positively to Mark Viduka’s delightful sixth-minute opener, the Londoners lacked any invention in the second half and Owen’s eighth goal of the season was inevitable.

“No-one should be surprised when you are felled by two of the finest strikers around,” said Fulham manager, Roy Hodgson. “I never saw Newcastle being embroiled in a relegation struggle. They would have had to implode.” For Fulham, the implosion gathers pace.

NEWCASTLE (4-3-1-2): Harper 6, Beye 6 (Edgar, 87, 5), Taylor 6, Faye 8, Enrique 8, Geremi 9, Butt 7, Barton 7, Owen 8, Viduka 8 (Smith, 84, 5), Martins 7 (N’Zogbia, 74, 6).

Subs Not Used: Forster, Carroll.

FULHAM (4-4-2): Keller 8, Stalteri 5 (Healy, 84, 5), Hughes 7, Hangeland 6, Konchesky 5, Andreasen 5, Bullard 8, Murphy 7 (Volz, 71, 5), Davies 5, McBride 5 (Dempsey, 66, 4), Johnson 4.

Subs Not Used: Warner, Bocanegra.

REFEREE: Alan Wiley (Staffordshire) :. An impressive display although this was not a fixture underpinned by the reckless passion which normally mars relegation battles.

MATCH RATING: *** Flowing football has been at a premium at St James’s Park this season but on Saturday Kevin Keegan’s mantra of crowd pleasing play was realised.

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