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Saturday, Oct. 9, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Real Madrid already on defensive over signing of Owen


LONDON -- It usually means the kiss of death for a coach and it is almost unprecedented for a player to be given a vote of confidence, but Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has spoken up for his non-striking striker Michael Owen, who has come under fire after failing to score since his arrival from Liverpool this summer.

Christopher Davies

It is said there are more politics at Bernabeu Stadium than at the White House and many feel Perez was forced to give his backing to the England international because it was his decision to buy the player.

Fernando Morientes had hinted Owen was "the president's signing" which Perez neither confirmed nor denied. He did, however, reveal -- to the surprise of very few -- the lack of control any Madrid coach would have over comings and goings.

"The club makes the signings," said Perez. "Neither [Luis] Figo, nor [Zinedine] Zidane, nor Ronaldo nor [David] Beckham were signed by the coach. Madrid's strategy is the best in the world."

Maybe it was, but whether this is still the case is questionable. Real has never had high-profile, big-name coaches and perhaps this is because the man in charge of the team cannot dictate, as is normally the case, which players he wants.

Perez leaped to Owen's defense by reminding everyone that he is not the first galactico who has struggled to adapt to life at Real.

"Zidane was also questioned and some people even said Madrid played better without him," said Perez. "I am used to this kind of criticism, they also did the same with Luis Figo and Ronaldo.

"I am certain Owen will succeed. Everyone needs time to adapt.

SO WHERE DID it all go wrong for Michael Owen, whose place in the England team to play Wales in a 2006 World Cup qualifier is also under threat?

He scored 118 goals in 216 Premiership appearances for Liverpool, a strike-rate just about any forward would be happy with.

Considering Owen never had a regular partner up front or a winger like David Beckham, Ryan Giggs or Robert Pires to supply telling crosses, that average is even more meritorious.

Owen's record is 27 goals in 63 internationals -- Owen could be forgiven for wondering what more he has to do.

A quiet, unassuming person who has strong family values, Owen has no scandal-skeletons in his closet yet the snipers are lining up to take pops at the player who hopes his back injury won't prevent his selection for the game against Wales.

Sir Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat trick for England in the 1966 World Cup final, believes Owen should be dropped by England head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Hurst, who displaced Jimmy Greaves in Sir Alf Ramsey's team during the 1966 finals, said Owen's inability to claim a regular place for Real should rule him out.

He said: "When Sir Alf Ramsey was manager of England, there were two stipulations before he would consider you for selection. You had to be playing regularly for your club and you mustn't be in dispute with them. On that basis, Michael fails because he isn't playing every week for Real Madrid.

Eriksson has Wayne Rooney available again and also Jermain Defoe, who has scored goals regularly with every club he has played for, also for England at junior levels and now with the senior team. On that basis I would select Jermain with Rooney."

With respect to Sir Geoff, Owen's stats are superior to those of Rooney and Defoe, while Owen has far more experience in European and international football.

"I am still up for the challenge. I'm hungry and I'm not a quitter,"said Owen. "You can't expect not to play throughout the season and get picked by England, but we're at the start of the season. I look around and see people like Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney [who have been injured or suspended] and feel I've played as much if not more than them.

"Real haven't seen anything like the best of me yet, but they will. I'm just going to have to be patient."

THE ENGLISH patient's problem seems to be that he has joined the right club at the wrong time. Real Madrid is a great club, but has an ailing team which is becoming a serial loser in La Liga, while its 3-0 defeat in the Champions League by Bayer Leverkusen was far more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests.

Madrid media has already turned against Owen, whose main rival for a place in the side is Raul, one of the all-time greats of Europe's most successful club, a striker who has broken just about every worthwhile scoring record.

For whatever reason, Liverpool felt Owen would not sign a new contract, so rather than risk losing him on a Bosman free transfer next summer, it cut its losses and accepted Real's bid of £8 million.

Few players turn down the chance to join Real, but the problems Owen is currently experiencing should have been foreseen when he signed on the dotted line.

The Madrid team has grown old and stale with some of the galacticos losing the cutting edge and determination that made them a target for Real in the first place.

Real's losing streak toward the end of last season has continued this time around and a side that desperately needed defenders and a holding midfield player instead bought another striker to challenge Raul, Ronaldo and Morientes.

Owen must surely have known he would not displace Raul, even though the captain's form over the past year has been a major cause for concern, or Ronaldo.

There were probably few other realistic offers on the table, so Owen went for Madrid at a time when the team was, by its standards, in crisis.

New coach Jose Camacho left after a handful of games and was replaced by Mariano Garcia Remon -- it is staggering that a club of Real's magnitude can appoint someone virtually nobody outside of Madrid has ever heard of.

Sympathy for Owen must be tempered by the king's ransom he will have already earned in a signing fee and wages, but this columnist's initial belief that the player was simply bought as a profit-making exercise remains.

Real could sell on Owen in January and double the sum it paid for the striker.

It bought him for less than his market value because of his contractual situation, like finding a £1 million house on the market for £500,000.

Owen will not hang around in Madrid if, by the time the January transfer window opens, he has not claimed a more regular starting place, otherwise his international career will suffer.

"If I'm in the same situation in a few months' time, the manager [Eriksson] has every right to think I shouldn't be in the England team," said Owen.

Eriksson, who has always demonstrated loyalty to his players, is likely to stand by Rooney and Owen -- if fit -- against Wales, but as the 2006 World Cup campaign progresses the Swede will surely be more reluctant to select even a player with Owen's record if he is not playing regular club football.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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