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Football: One for Owen and forecasters to forget; ENGLAND COMMENT.

Byline: LEN CAPELING

LL the talk before the main event was of Michael Owen sailing past Alan Shearer's England goals tally, and Sven's men writing their names into the Guinness Book of Records.

The fact that neither happened will annoy those who foolishly forecasted another cringing collapse by Azerbaijan. The most sensible prediction after shipping eight goals in Poland, was that Azerbaijan would retreat into deepest defence with nine men behind the ball and hardly any support for a lone striker.

And that's exactly what they did.

They still needed a season's ration of luck, much of which stemmed from the fact that Michael had one of those games that wake strikers screaming from sleep.

He missed four gilt-edged chances, three of them headers and found every run ending in a blindalley.

But although that will worry Michael as much as the bizarre booking that keeps him out September's game against Wales, Sven-Goran Eriksson will still force a smile after a good week's work.

For this was a game England were never remotely in danger of losing, and one which, whatever the final score, was going to keep England within sight of Germany.

When Sven poured ice water on the likelihood of a goal glut he knew that Azerbaijan coach Alberto Carlos would construct a 4-5-1, or as it turned out, a 4-1-3-1-1 and ask his men to attack only one thing, the space.

He found good fortune in the fact that England's central two, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, were for once off the pace.

Neither looked in touch, the Chelsea player too often crowded out and Gerrard getting no range on his passes and perhaps trying the improbable too often.

Thankfully, England had heroes in Joe Cole, again shining on the left and captain David Beckham who answered his critics with a sparkling show from the start.

Where it all went wrong for those who had placed bets on anything between six and 10 goals was that most of the crosses went to waste simply because the man most likely to benefit was employed as a pundit on Match of the Day.

Alan Shearer will not return. Not now. Indeed, he may be playing his last games for Newcastle unless Graeme Souness can play warm and cuddly instead of cold and uncompromising.

Throughout Beckham and Joe Cole, supported by Ashley Cole and Gary Neville, delivered a stream of inviting ammunition that Shearer would have found unbearably attractive. But Owen, Beckham and Wayne Rooney either headed wide or straight at goalkeeper Kamarenko who gave a performance that was half clown and half seal - with the occasional stunning save.

Rooney hit the post. Beckham brushed the woodowork, and all the time Sven sat on the bench and whispered: 'I told you so'. His refusal to accept that goals would flow got him tagged as a spoilsport. But even he must have breathed a sigh of relief when his favoured score, 1-0, eventually appeared. A superb pass from Beckham freed Rooney and he beat one foul and another closing defender before his ball into the centre fell into the path of Gerrard whose mis-hit volley boomed off the slippery turf and arrowed into the net.

No sooner had that happened, Beckham appeared beyond the Azerbaijan defence to glide the ball off his chest for a conclusive right-foot finish.

Twice as good for Sven, then, but not for Michael Owen who continued to scorn chances.

Stranger yet, the next time Rooney crossed - this time from the right - Owen missed the ball at the far post and brushed it with his hand, in what looked like sheer accident.

The referee thought otherwise, flourished a yellow card, and Owen will not appear at the Millennium Stadium. It was that kind of night for Michael, and those optimistic high-score forecasters

CAPTION(S):

Another chance goes begging for Michael Owen during England's 2-0 win against Azerbaijan last night
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 31, 2005
Words:652
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