MICHAEL OWEN scored a hat-trick as Manchester United made light of their injury woes to record a memorable win over German champions Wolfsburg last night.
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 better displays on a night when United had their backs against the wall.
United manager Alex Ferguson was hugely impressed with the former Liverpool man’s display.
Asked about Owen’s contribution, Ferguson said: “Fantastic. I’m really pleased for him.
“Michael’s finishing and positional play were superb. He has proved his worth and I am delighted with his performance.”
Owen refused to take all the credit for the victory, saying the team as a whole had to dig deep to contend with so many absentees.
“Me getting three goals will probably grab the headlines, but it was a great team performance,” Owen said.
“I was playing deep with us having so many players out and we were trying to protect the back four.”
Owen, who turns 30 next Monday, hopes United will now be handed a favourable tie in the last 16 after progressing as group winners.
“It’s great being top so we play at home second,” he said. “But I’m not going to lie, you want as weak a side as possible.’’
Ferguson expects strikers Dimitar Berbatov and Rooney to be fit for Saturday’s encounter with Aston Villa along with Ryan Giggs, who was rested last night.
Crucially, Nemanja Vidic will have recovered from the flu virus that saw him miss last night’s match.
“Our defence will be Fletcher, Carrick, Vidic and Evra,” confirmed Ferguson, his statement suggesting that Wes Brown will not have recovered from a hamstring injury as he had hoped.
As United were without 14 recognised senior players, including eight defenders, 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 defeat of any kind 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. When Nani drifted over a cross from the left 60 seconds before the break, Owen 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, 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, made it a memorable night for Owen and the Red Devils.
WOLFSBURG: Benaglio, Schafer, Barzagli, Ricardo Costa, Riether, Josue, Gentner, Hasebe (Ziani 72), Misimovic, Dzeko, Grafite (Dejagah 72).
MAN UNITED: Kuszczak, Park, Fletcher, Carrick, Evra, Gibson, Scholes, Nani (Valencia 74), Welbeck (Obertan 74), Anderson, Owen.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Holland).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved