Crystal Palace v Stoke City: Could time be against Michael Owen?
WE could be witnessing the demise of not just Michael Owen the striker, but also the demise of the Michael Owen kind of striker.
Owen himself recently admitted that traditional strike partnerships, including that slippery second striker he once was, were a dying breed at the top level of today’s game.
As for Owen himself, he accepts he no longer has that speed off the last defender’s shoulder even when he is fit and handed that opportunity.
For now, it seems, he is only being trusted with that increasingly common role between midfield and the lone striker.
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He can never have run square across a football pitch as much as he did on Saturday after toiling fruitlessly for the most part in his first start for Stoke and his first start in 14 months.
Selhurst Park has changed little since a 17-year-old announced himself to the world with his first goal for Liverpool there in 1997, but the game and the player most certainly have in the intervening years.
His 50-odd minutes on the pitch on Saturday saw Owen catch just one sight of scoring when a flicked header from close range went across the face of goal for Peter Crouch to then prod wide.
The optimists out there – and they hopefully still include the Stoke manager – will regard Saturday as a stepping stone towards Owen’s return to some kind of consistent match fitness after just 100 minutes of football so far this season.
But even once match fit, where does Owen fit into this Stoke line-up?
He has to go some to command a starting place in that role between midfield and attack, so we are left with what many of us have long suspected from the day he arrived.
That at this stage of both his career and Stoke’s development, Owen’s value will be as a potential goalscorer from the bench towards the end of tight matches when his bright mind can get the better of tiring defenders.
But only time will tell whether he can fulfil that role in his last four-and-a-half months at the club.
Charlie Adam is another whose reputation is suffering right now, of course, and you have to feel for a player clearly low on confidence and bearing the added burden of a recent family tragedy.
What he would have given for an ambitious 50-yard effort over a stranded Palace keeper landing in the back of the net on Saturday instead of clearing the bar in the second half. After all, it was the same goal David Beckham found from even further out once-upon-a-time.
How Owen and Adam must envy the life of an ageing goalkeeper.
Thomas Sorensen had every excuse to look ring rusty at 36 and with next to no game time to his name this season. But from the moment he leapt to claw away Jermaine Easter’s early effort for a lively Palace, the great Dane carried the air of someone about to claim the club’s 10th clean sheet of the season.
His fingertips were crucially employed later in the first half, too, after diving low to prevent Wilfried Zaha claiming more headlines in a Palace shirt.
It was a belated burst of meaningful action from the much-touted winger and was quickly followed by a dangerous left-wing cross.
Ryan Shotton’s attempt to block that cross left Zaha in a crumpled heap, however, and Ian Holloway bouncing up and down like a jack-in-the-box.
With Zaha hobbling thereafter and eventually withdrawn, and with 22-goal striker Glenn Murray not even making the squad, Palace were calling upon increasingly fragile resources to pierce Stoke’s admirable determination to ensure a replay next week.
For Stoke themselves to have won they surely needed far more penetration down the sides and delivery from the flanks than they were able to muster on Saturday.
They did enjoy their best spell of sustained pressure in the final quarter, but produced nothing to match the two close-range efforts Crouch failed to dispatch earlier in the day.
There will be those disappointed not to see their team – even with half-a-dozen changes – impose themselves more successfully on a Palace outfit with at least half-an-eye on the much greater challenge and bountiful reward of promotion to the Premier League.
But no-one should sniff at earning a second shot at Palace in next week’s replay when Holloway will surely make more than the four changes he instigated on Saturday.