BOLTON // It may seem strange to refer to a player's fall from grace when he is a multi-millionaire, employed by Manchester United and possesses one of the few squeaky-clean images in the English game.
Yet these have been chastening times for Michael Owen, a descent from European Footballer of the Year to fifth-choice forward for his club seeming to signal inexorable decline. But while the searing pace has gone, the predatory instincts remain and they ensured that an awkward afternoon for United was nevertheless a landmark occasion for Owen.
A well-judged header, flicked backwards and into the far post, spared his side a first defeat of the season and brought up a double century of goals for his English clubs. That 158 came in the colours of Liverpool - and a mere dozen for his current employers - did not prevent the travelling United supporters asserting "he hates Scousers". They have long been ambivalent about Owen but, as he did against Manchester City, Aston Villa and Wolfsburg last season, his sporadic contributions have nevertheless been important.
This was a damage-limitation exercise. "It was an opportunity to close that gap at the top but it was not to be," Owen admitted. Indeed, after defeats for Chelsea and Arsenal on Saturday, it was a chance to move to within a point of the summit. "Teams drop points when you don't expect them," Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said. However, United's difficulties on the road are becoming a theme. Three consecutive draws in the league have shown them to be unusually porous at the back.
"Away from home this season we have scored seven goals and we have only got three points," Ferguson lamented. Able to reflect after the game, his reactions during it suggested an anger about an uncharacteristic lack of ruthlessness. "We created tremendous chances and played a lot of good football and did well to come from behind," added the manager, whose team trailed twice. "It was a fair result."
It was a terrific game, open and end to end. Bolton Wanderers have a new-found fearlessness under Owen Coyle and the forceful combination of Kevin Davies and Johan Elmander in attack frequently outmuscled Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans. Had the Swede taken either of two fine chances, one carved out with a blockbusting run, United could have departed pointless. Martin Petrov added high-class delivery from the left flank while the set-pieces that he and Stuart Holden oversaw displayed a weakness in the United ranks.
It was apparent for the opening goal. Petrov's corner was met with surprising delicacy by Zat Knight, the giant defender applying a deft flick that beat Patrice Evra, who left his station on the far post, to find the net. Yet one of the features of United's year has been Nani's transition from wild card to banker. The Portuguese levelled with an excellent individual effort. He was still in his own half when Wayne Rooney laid the ball back to him.
He was soon bearing down on the Bolton box, a product of direct running and a reluctance to challenge him. Just when Paul Robinson and Sam Ricketts committed themselves to challenges, Nani unleashed a shot, angled across the goal to defeat Jussi Jaaskelainen. It was in keeping with a topsy-turvy game when Bolton restored their lead with what Coyle termed "a terrific move". Davies controlled Chung-yong Lee's diagonal pass and played a reverse ball into the path of Petrov. The Bulgarian turned away from Ji-sung Park and struck a shot that the unfortunate Darren Fletcher diverted past Edwin van der Sar.
"Bit by bit, hopefully we can start changing opinions," added Coyle, hoping to shed Wanderers' reputation as a long-ball team. Their mastery from dead-ball situations is well known, but each side benefited from a set-piece. Owen had only been on the field for three minutes when he glanced in Nani's free-kick. "An exquisite finish," Coyle admitted. It was also Owen's first touch. Following a midweek brace at Scunthorpe United, it made it three goals in two games for the 30-year-old. Whether it is proof of rehabilitation is another matter. Ferguson has often defended Owen, but only selected him infrequently.
Indeed, it was notable that the Italian ingenue Federico Macheda was introduced before him yesterday. His eventual arrival, however, came with the timing Owen has long displayed in the penalty area. email@example.com