Owen lifts Man Utd's Euro hopes
England coach Fabio Capello admits Owen is his "tormentor" - the flesh and blood embodiment of the selection dilemma that will face him before the World Cup.
The more goals Owen scores, the more Capello will be tormented. And Sir Alex Ferguson will hope Owen's hat-trick in Germany on Tuesday will be the start of torture that will make the Italian suffer all the way to South Africa.
If Owen maintains the momentum this stunning performance will give him, it should not only make his World Cup selection a formality, it will bolster an Old Trafford assault on the Champions League that will grow in confidence after the win in Wolfsburg.
The Premier League has delivered an impressive show of strength as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United cleared the opening hurdles in comfort and finished top of their groups - but Liverpool's fall at the first fence represents a significant failure for manager Rafael Benitez and his team.
Owen's role as the lethal spearhead in a makeshift United line-up that beat the German champions will hearten Ferguson as he looks for an added goal threat to replace that previously provided by the peerless Cristiano Ronaldo.
Michael Owen produced a vintage performance against Wolfsburg to seal top spot in their group for United
Dimitar Berbatov continues to flatter to deceive too often, so confirmation that Owen can still deliver the game's most precious commodity in the Champions League will give United's challenge fresh impetus as they prepare for the last 16.
Owen's injury record makes caution an inevitable watchword, but the manner in which he took his goals - especially the third as he raced from the halfway line before completing the coolest of finishes - was enough to suggest he may still write fresh chapters in his career for club and country.
When reflecting on Capello's options for South Africa, I insisted Owen must be on the plane if he is fit. He is quite simply too good to ignore, although his exclusion for the friendly against Brazil in Doha suggested he would need to produce something special to convince Capello of his worth.
And this he did against Wolfsburg - although it is only stage one on a long road to England rehabilitation as part of an Old Trafford career that is still in its infancy.
Owen's goals, scored as they were in the Champions League, will also be noted around Europe as befits a player whose reputation still goes before him, despite the lean years caused by injuries and loss of form.
He sent a message to Ferguson and Capello with such an accomplished renewal of his old instincts, and perhaps a few others besides. The natural gifts remain, the ability to lurk on the shoulder of the last defender, the knack of timing intelligent runs to perfection. Capello will surely not ignore this attractive package if it still in full working order when the time to select his squad comes.
I have stated before that Liverpool boss Benitez should have made a play for Owen in the summer and he has now shown exactly why. I make no apologies for repeating that view and Liverpool's tame exit from the Champions League strengthens the argument.
This not being wise after the event, especially as the prospect of a return to Anfield would have, in all likelihood, been even more enticing to Owen than a deal at Old Trafford.
Those who care to disagree may wish to recall how Andriy Voronin never looked like scoring against Lyon with the sort of chance Owen never looked like missing against Wolfsburg?
At the start of the Champions League, I felt Ferguson could regard it as an achievement just to take United to a third successive final, let alone win the tournament, after the loss of Ronaldo. I still stand by that, but potential opponents in the last 16 will hold no terrors for Ferguson.
Bayern Munich and the Milan giants may be best avoided - but all three English teams would fancy their chances even if drawn against them.
I believe United may yet need extra class in the attacking third to compensate for the loss of Ronaldo to Real Madrid and it is unlikely they will find it outside their current ranks in January.
This may yet prove crucial in the closing stages of the Champions League, but this does not mean they should be written off. If Owen builds on his treble against Wolfsburg and remains in rude health, Ferguson's free transfer signing may prove a masterstroke.
United's performance in reduced circumstances in Germany demonstrated an inner resolve and adaptability in Ferguson's squad, and an ability among his shadow squad to rise to the occasion, especially after the disappointment of a rare home defeat against Besiktas.
And, despite Ferguson's laid-back attitude to finishing top of the Champions League group, it is still preferable and he will delighted United achieved that goal.
Gabriel Obertan looks a player rich in promise and if Ferguson can get enough of his injured players back in short order, then expect them to arrive in the later stages. It remains to be seen, however, if they will have the strength to match the artists of Barcelona should they meet again.
Chelsea's passage into the knockout phase has been relatively untroubled, despite a stodgy conclusion with a draw against Apoel Nicosia at Stamford Bridge in their final game.
Carlo Ancelotti will expect improvement from Chelsea in the next phase of the competition
I have rarely seen Carlo Ancelotti so dissatisfied this season - and as a man who knows his way around the Champions League, he will be aware such lack-lustre efforts can cause serious damage in the later stages.
There has been the slightest of stumbles since the imperious win at Arsenal, but Chelsea at their finest arguably represent England's best hope of winning the Champions League this season. Coach and players have been around the block several times - and there is a sense in the Chelsea camp that now is the time to reach out and take hold of the big prize that has remained tantalisingly out of their grasp.
Arsenal, too, have been impressive as they breezed through Group H, even in defeat against Olympiakos. I find it hard, however, to see Arsene Wenger's side as potential winners while they continue to exhibit the frailty that has surfaced again recently.
Hugely-gifted but occasionally flawed, they have the individuals to trouble any team when the mood takes them, but they remain too lightweight in key areas and the loss of Robin van Persie for several months is a devastatiing blow to all of their ambitions.
Wenger, however, never takes a backward step in his belief that this Arsenal team can beat anyone - and expect him to speak confidently about overcoming any obstacles that may present themselves.
Liverpool's demise provided one of the stories of the qualifying stage and the disappointments continued right up until the last kick of their Champions League season, with Fiorentina following Lyon in inflicting defeat at Anfield.
Manager Benitez has made much of his reputation off the back of his ability to take them into the business end of the Champions League, but this was a desperate campaign for both him and his players.
It simply never got started. Liverpool were presented with a group that was difficult, but hardly impossible, and it is hard to find anyone who predicted their downfall when the balls came out of the bowl.
A low-key win against Debrecen opened affairs, but this was taken more as a case of first night nerves than a long-term problem. Defeats away to Fiorentina and at home to Lyon made the eventual diagnosis a fatal one in terms of Liverpool's ambitions in a competition Anfield cherishes.
Benitez could not coax another great escape out of Liverpool. With Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard injured at critical times and £20m Alberto Aquilani not available until it was too late, Liverpool failed to deliver on a stage that has suited them so well.
Those injuries may allow them to offer up a measure of ill-fortune as a contributory factor along with a nasty habit of conceding important late goals, but in reality Liverpool have ended up in exactly the place where their performances merited, namely the Europa League.
While we should not forget the performances of Scottish champions Rangers, it is perhaps best that we do. The Champions League found them horribly out of their depth and not the best advert for the quality on show north of the border.
Rangers were crushed at home by Sevilla and the unheralded Unirea Urziceni and were also beaten by Stuttgart, a perhaps inevitable result of the financial difficulties swirling around manager Walter Smith.
So it is left to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United to fly the British flag as the Champions League moves into the knockout stage.
Arsenal would spring a surprise if they went all the way, while Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich expects nothing less under Ancelotti. Manchester United, meanwhile, used that final group game in Germany to sound an ominous warning that you write them off at your peril.
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