Michael Owen’s first hat-trick in four years helped an injury-ravaged Manchester United see off Wolfsburg and secure top spot in Group B. United’s injury crisis, with Sir Alex Ferguson missing nine defenders, meant that Patrice Evra, captain for the night, was the only recognised defender in the side that secured an unlikely 3-1 victory in Germany.
Evra, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher created a three-man defence, with the energetic Park Ji-Sung filling in at right wing-back and Nani reprising the role on the other flank.
Wolfsburg required a win at the Volkswagon Arena to seal the club’s place in the knockout stages of the Champions League, while United needed only a point to secure top spot and a potentially easier tie in the next round.
Wolfsburg, surely sensing an opportunity, looked threatening against the makeshift United defence and should have taken a 17th minute lead when Andrea Barzagli found himself unmarked five yards out. The midfielder’s close-range header flew over a grateful Tomasz Kuszczak in United’s goal.
Carrick was then fortunate not to concede a penalty when he felled Makoto Hasebe with a mis-timed tackle eight yards out. While the midfielder was not under control of the ball, the referee got the decision wrong in awarding a corner.
Woflsburg wasted two further guilt-edged chances when Barzagli and then Zvjezdan Misimovic headed over when well placed.
But United countered well on the break and teenage striker Danny Welbeck slotted in neatly on the half hour only for the referee to rule the Manchester-born striker’s effort offside.
Then came United’s break a minute before the interval. Paul Scholes played a ball out to Nani on the left-wing and the infuriating Portuguese winger repaid the manager’s faith by looping a pinpoint cross to the back post for Owen to outjump his marker and nod in. One chance, one goal from the diminutive striker.
Wolfsburg, almost inevitably, struck back after the break. Midfielder Marcel Schafer crossed from the left and reported United target Edin Dzeko powered a header past Kuszczak. The Polish ‘keeper, who is starting to show some real confidence in Edwin van der Sar’s absence, could do nothing to prevent the equaliser.
Kuszczak was in good form and he denied Grafite, Misimovic and Dzeko as Wolfsburg looked for the winning goal to take the side into the next stage.
Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan came on for Nani and Welbeck and ten minutes later United scored to end Wolfsburg’s hopes of qualification. Obertan brilliantly danced his way through the German’s defence – beating three players in the process – and delivered an inch-perfect pass across the six-yard line for Owen to slot home.
Wolfsburg, desperate to find an opening, piled forward but United ended the game with a superbly taken third. Obertan found Owen on the counter and the former-Liverpool striker ran half the length of the pitch before expertly chipping in for his hat-trick and three points for United.
Fabio Capello take note.
“It was a fantastic performance,” said Ferguson of Owen’s hat-trick.
“Michael’s finishing and positional play were superb. He has proved his worth and I’m delighted with his performance.
“Obviously, in some games recently we have only played with one striker and Wayne Rooney has been it. Against Wolfsburg we used a different system.
“I made the point some weeks ago that Owen’s training performances have improved steadily. I have had no worries about him.
“The evidence of a player is always on the field and Michael has given us that.”
Team: Kuszczak; Evra, Carrick, Fletcher; Park, Scholes, Gibson, Anderson, Nani (Valencia 74); Owen, Welbeck (Obertan 74)