STOKE, September 25 – Tony Pulis admires Michael Owen sufficiently to have made a concerted effort to sign him for Stoke during the close season.
That effort failed and, when Manchester United visit the Britannia Stadium here on Saturday, Pulis fears his team may discover first-hand why he was so keen on bringing the then free-agent to the club.
Owen scored the deciding goal in last weekend’s extraordinary Manchester derby before starting, for just the second time since signing at Old Trafford, in the midweek League Cup win over Wolves.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson would, therefore, appear most likely to play Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov from the start against Stoke but, following his impressive performance off the bench against Manchester City, Owen could undoubtedly have a significant role to play.
"I hope his last goal wasn’t the start of a scoring run," said Pulis. "If he scores he could take off and, if he does, he will certainly be part of Fabio Capello plans (for England).
"I don’t think he will start though, I think Ferguson will play Rooney and Berbatov. But we should take that as a compliment that he will play his strongest side.
"Chelsea did it days before a Champions League game and last year’s performances at our place have shown we are difficult to play against and a tough nut to crack."
Owen still has to convince Capello he is worthy of consideration for England ahead of next summer’s World Cup but, within the environs of Old Trafford at least, the striker has already made a major impact.
"It was great playing with Michael Owen, because Michael Owen’s Michael Owen," said the teenage forward Danny Welbeck, whose match winner against Wolves was set up by Owen.
"You can always learn from his movement, it’s unbelievable. I just knew he was around the corner and he knew where I was going next. He played it there and I finished it off well."
Welbeck, and a number of other impressive youngsters, will have to be satisfied with gaining experience in the League Cup, for the time being at least, given the fact that United’s early season loss at Burnley has left Ferguson in no mood for experimentation in the league, especially for such a difficult encounter as a visit to Stoke.
However, one area where Ferguson may be tempted into drastic action is at goalkeeper given Ben Foster’s appalling error against Manchester City last weekend and his generally unconvincing form since stepping in for the injured Edwin van der Sar at the start of the season.
Even before Foster’s mistake gifted Carlos Tevez the ball, and City their first equaliser on Sunday, Ferguson had taken the rare step of publically criticising his goalkeeper for the manner in which he conceded a goal in a recent game against Arsenal.
All of which may be tempting Ferguson into handing Polish international Tomasz Kuszczak, who started in the League Cup on Wednesday, the job against Stoke, a side whose approach and reliance on set-pieces provides a stiff test of any goalkeeper’s aerial prowess and confidence.
Stoke’s preparations have not been smooth with striker James Beattie below par in the League Cup against Blackpool in midweek as he struggles to overcome an ankle problem. Ricardo Fuller also limped off with a groin injury in that game and is rated doubtful.