SPORTS

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May 18, 2001

Welcome back, Mr. Owen

Make no mistake -- he's back. After a two-year hiatus, Michael Owen seems to have returned to the pantheon of the world's best strikers. This past Saturday, Owen struck twice in the closing minutes of the FA Cup final to give Liverpool a brilliant 2-1 win over London Arsenal. To further salt Arsenal's wounds, the London club pretty much had the match under control before Owen's late entrance. With around 10 minutes left in the game, Arsenal held a 1-0 lead. Given their stalwart back line, a Liverpool goal seemed improbable. Two late strikes would qualify as a downright miracle.

In 10 minutes, Michael Owen turned a country famous for its skepticism into believers again.

The English wonderboy achieved the unthinkable: he scored two sensational goals and gave Liverpool a chance to win three cups this season. [Liverpool won the UEFA cup over Alaves 5-4, with an own-goal in extra time. -Ed.] Arsenal could only hang their heads in disbelief. Liverpool supporters across the country (and the world) rejoiced. Now, after an all-too-long absence, Owen turned in one of the most stunning performances in FA Cup history. Was it only a year ago that many critics argued that Owen could not reclaim his former glory? On Saturday, the diminutive Anfield forward proved them wrong. Certainly, the prodigious striker has been plagued by a persistent hamstring injury that appeared to seriously hamper his style of play. Owen basically limped through last season; he never displayed his frightening pace or his willingness to attack defenders.

Even in this FA Cup final, Owen's belated entrance was only a desperate prayer Gerard Houllier uttered to the skies at around the 80th minute. True to his history, Owen answered the prayer in thunderous fashion. Despite riding the pine for the majority of the match, Owen immediately took control of the game and created chances for himself. By demonstrating his sublime skills once again, the Liverpool frontrunner distinguished himself from the rest of the pack. Furthermore, he also solidified his place as one of the world's best attackers.

Many claim that England lacks any truly world-class talent. Aside from David Beckham, they say, England is a squad composed of hardworking players that cannot challenge the likes of Brazil or France. Admittedly, I was never overly impressed by England's previous golden boy, Alan Shearer. Shearer possessed solid skills, good presence in the air, and a commitment to winning, but the Newcastle player never truly separated himself from his peers in quite the eye-opening style of Owen. Shearer scored great goals and led the team well, but he could not single-handedly win games. Owen, however, seems to have that spark.

This past FA Cup also saw a terrifying new facet to Michael Owen's already superlative game: his left foot. Previously, Owen relied heavily on his right foot, often pulling the ball back towards his right leg before having a crack at goal. At his level, a player must possess firm control over both feet. A lack of this control could signify the difference between a win and a loss. On Saturday, Owen finished from the top of the box with his left foot -- a sign that perhaps England's newest star has made strides in improving his play.

Liverpool's win broke Arsenal's heart, but Arsenal's loss certainly stands as England's gain. After this performance, Michael Owen's confidence must be soaring, and that's a great sign for Sven Eriksson's squad. Owen has played well internationally in recent months, but he has yet to match his scintillating run against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Of course, many would say that the lightening Owen produced in '98 does not strike twice, but I disagree. Superstars have a habit for making the unbelievable happen over and over again. Just ask Tiger Woods or Pele -- the very best always rise to the occasion and dominate.

One could easily say that England's previous generation of footballers never had a player who (pardon the baseball analogy) stepped up to the plate. Paul Gascoigne, for all his antics and his title as the best of his generation, never produced in the huge games. A somewhat similar player, Diego Maradona, somehow managed (either through divine intervention or otherwise) to make the magical happen when it counted. Certainly, Alan Shearer is not on par with a Woods or a Pele. England's other superstar, David Beckham, is still dogged for his petulance in the '98 Argentina match. No, as Owen emphatically proved this past Saturday, only a select few players can make lightening strike twice. Undoubtedly, Owen stands as one of them. Anyone who doesn't believe this fact can just ask Arsenal.