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Wayne a true great: Owen

Michael Owen could be forgiven for feeling the occasional pang of jealousy towards Wayne Rooney, but the one-time golden boy of English football had nothing but praise last night for the "local scally made good" and the present bearer of that particular crown.

It is somewhat ironic that the better Rooney gets, the more damage he inadvertently inflicts on his Manchester United and sometime England team-mate, but while Owen has found himself reduced increasingly to the fringes for club and country as Rooney runs riot, there are no feelings of bitterness.

Rooney has been showered with almost universal praise en route to scoring 17 times in his past 18 matches for United, Owen appears in danger of becoming a forgotten man, but having hogged the limelight at the expense of others in the past, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid forward was happy enough to join the chorus of approval for England's best player.

Fantastic

Asked if Rooney was as good as anybody in the world at the moment, Owen said: "Unfortunately for me, yes, because it means I get less time, but he's fantastic.

"He is as he comes across -- a local scally, really, that's come good. He's a cracking lad and a cracking player. A lot of people relate to him, the way he plays. That's why he's so popular -- the England fans sing his name, the United fans sing his name.

"He's been absolutely fantastic, his finishing is unbelievable, and his general play -- if he continues this, he will be one of the world's best."

Owen was less upbeat about his chances of making it to the World Cup finals in the summer. "It's been a long time since I was in the England squad," he said.

"You never give up but it's probably a long shot in racing terms." In that sense, Owen must wonder if he made the right decision joining United on a free transfer last July.

He insisted yesterday that, "it's hard not to enjoy it when you're winning games, you're playing well and in among the lads", but with every week that passes, as first-team opportunities become more rare, Owen falls farther down the England pecking order, to the point where Bobby Zamora, the in-form Fulham striker, stands a better chance of inclusion in Capello's 23 for South Africa.

Owen has played just 160 minutes of football for United since the turn of the year and made only two starts since scoring a hat-trick away to Wolfsburg in the Champions League on December 8. With Dimitar Berbatov, United's £30.75m record signing, not always starting games because of Rooney's form, Owen stands no chance, so much so that it will be no surprise if he leaves Old Trafford in the summer.

Owen is expected to be on the substitutes' bench again for United's Premier League match at home to West Ham United this evening, although he may start the Carling Cup final against Aston Villa at Wembley on Sunday if Alex Ferguson, the manager, opts to field the reserves.

Owen, though, remains bullish. "It's been great. Whenever I'm called upon, I'm fit and ready," he said. "Of course you want to play a bit more but I've had some cracking times already at United."

Ferguson could pair Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence against West Ham for the first time in almost four months as the manager looks to shore up a back four that has shipped five goals in the past two matches.

Ferdinand is available after completing a four-match suspension for violent conduct and Vidic, who was an unused substitute in the 3-1 defeat by Everton at Goodison Park on Saturday, could be in line to start after seven weeks out with a calf problem.

Stability

Meanwhile, Michael Carrick has only kind thoughts for West Ham -- until United tackle them tonight that is. Carrick enjoyed six seasons at Upton Park, even sticking with them after their relegation in 2003.

Eventually the 28-year-old moved on, first to Tottenham and then Manchester United, where he has won the title in each of his three seasons so far.

But the bond remains, which is why he is delighted a new ownership team of David Sullivan and David Gold appears to be intent on bringing some stability to the Eastenders.

"West Ham gave me my chance," he said. "I have a lot to thank them for and still have a lot of friends there.

"Hopefully the new owners can bring some stability, which maybe they have not had over the past few years. I want them to stay up to keep that stability and hopefully progress after that.

"But obviously, when we kick off it is business as usual and I am desperate to get the win we need."

As the Hammers have not registered an away win since their opening day triumph at Wolves, it appears unlikely they will stop United returning to winning ways.

Yet Carrick feels their squad is better than results suggest and with a number of key men back, could turn out to be a major threat.

"They have some real talent but have had injuries at the wrong time," he said.

© The Times, London


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