WOLFSBURG // Manchester United's hat trick hero Michael Owen would not have given it much thought, but his opponents in the Vfl Wolfsburg side during Wednesday's Champions League fixture are all funded by German automobile giants Volkswagen. "Without Volkswagen we'd be nothing," opined a Wolfsburg supporter in the heavy and persistent rain outside their modern 30,000 capacity Volkswagen Arena.
The German car giant, employer to 45,000 of the town's 120,000 population, has long bankrolled the local football team. Vlf Wolfsburg, traditionally a second tier club befitting a town of their size, have established themselves in the Bundesliga since their promotion in 1997, while bigger clubs from cities like Frankfurt have played at a lower level. Wolfsburg were not commercial pioneers in their homeland as pharmaceutical giants Bayer have long funded the 2002 Champions League finalists Leverkusen, but they were notable at the turn of the decade for being coached by the aptly named Wolfgang Wolf.
Wolfsburg enjoyed their best season in 2008-09 when their experienced coach Felix Magath led them to the Bundesliga title for the first time with their strike-force of the Bosnian Edin Dzeko and the Brazilian Grafite. They became the first two strikers from the same team to score more than 20 goals each in the league's history. The fans in the car factory town have never had it so good, the arena is full to capacity each week and Champions League qualification saw teams Manchester United visit.
Second in the group before Tuesday night's game, Wolfsburg needed a win against the English champions. A severe injury list meant United's defence has never appeared so unconventional, with stand in captain Patrice Evra the only recognised defender. Although nominally a 3-5-2 formation, Ji Sung Park played at right-back - a position he last played at university - while Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick dropped back to form a central defensive pairing with Evra playing more centrally. Rookie defender Oliver Gill, son of the United chief executive David, was named as substitute.
"It was a risk changing the system," offered Sir Alex Ferguson, "but we changed it to give us the best chance of handling the two imposing strikers. I thought that playing three centre backs would give us a better chance." Despite a heavy pitch, Wolfsburg began with intent and attacked United's ersatz defence with conviction. They should have been awarded a penalty when Carrick connected with Hasebe and should have taken the lead via the heads Andrea Barzagli and Zvjezdan Misimovic, but both sent their efforts off target.
United stunned the noisy home crowd when they took the lead three minutes before the break after Owen headed in a cross from Nani - the Portuguese winger earning slight redemption from the often justified criticism in sections of his own support. When an unmarked Dzeko headed an equaliser after 56 minutes, Wolfsburg became the first team to breach the United defence away from home in the Champions League this season. With group rivals CSKA Moscow wining against Besiktas, the Germans pushed for an equaliser and the noise level even managed to rise above that of the public address announcer who was so loud it was painful. Yet United are wily creatures in Europe and the Germans were twice caught out by Owen's instinct, in the 83rd and 90th minute. His second was thanks to a sublime cross from substitute Gabriel Obertan.
"There was pressure of Wolfsburg to get the result," said Ferguson after the match. "That suited us because we could sit back. They are a strong team and were unlucky because they were hit on the counter attack twice." As the 2,000 travelling United fans sang "One Michael Owen", Ferguson glowed: "He's one of the best strikers around in the last third of the field in terms of movement, positional play and finishing. I choose who plays by evidence on the pitch and Michael's given me plenty of evidence tonight. His training performance has improved steadily and I've never had any worries about playing him."
Three victories in their three away games meant United's qualified as group winners, while Wolfsburg will have to be content with a Europa League place. Their fans are still grateful - to their players and to their automobile masters. Meanwhile, Sol Campbell would welcome an approach from United to help solve their defensive crisis. The 35-year-old centre-back, who has 73 England caps, is without a club after an acrimonious exit from Notts County in September, although he has been training at former club Arsenal to stay fit. Ferguson has reportedly targeted Campbell, who would be free to join United in January, as a possible signing
"I have heard nothing officially from United, but there have been suggestions and, of course, it would be a great move for me, if it happens," Campbell told ESPN. "Of course I would love to play for Manchester United." firstname.lastname@example.org