LONDON, Sept 13 (Reuters) Michael Owen scored two outstanding first-half goals to spearhead England to a 3-0 win over Russia at Wembley Stadium and take them closer to a place in next year's European championship finals.
England followed up their 3-0 demolition of Israel at Wembley on Saturday with an even better performance against far tougher and technically superior opposition to move into second place in Group E.
Croatia, who beat Andorra 6-0 yesterday, are top with 23 points, followed by England on 20 with Russia, who lost for the first time in Euro 2008 qualifying, third on 18 points.
Owen opened the scoring after yesterday seven minutes with a close-range right-foot curling shot from seven metres and made it 2-0 after 31 minutes with a blistering volley for his 40th England goal. Russia had a goal disallowed for handball in the first half.
Defender Rio Ferdinand wrapped up the points with a well-struck shot in the 84th minute after being set up by Owen.
England's victory means that if they beat Estonia as expected at Wembley on October 13, draws in Russia and at home to Croatia in their final two games will guarantee they qualify for the finals in Austria and Switzerland next year.
CRUCIAL OUTCOME The outcome was crucial for both teams as Russia came to Wembley in second place, unbeaten after eight matches and having conceded only one goal under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink.
The master tactician had been considered as a replacement for Sven-Goran Eriksson after the World Cup last year before Steve McClaren took the job, but it was McClaren who saw his team establish a lead and never look back.
England went ahead after Russia failed to clear a Gareth Barry corner. Alexander Anyukov headed the ball back to Barry, whose second cross eluded the leaping John Terry and Konstantin Zyryanov and fell at the unmarked Owen's feet.
With time and space he curled home a right-foot shot that went in off the post. Three minutes later, England nearly doubled their lead but Russian keeper Vyacheslav Malafeyev blocked a shot from Emile Heskey and the ball was cleared before Owen could follow up.
Russia thought they had equalised after 18 minutes when Zyryanov cracked the ball past Paul Robinson but Swedish referee Martin Hansson ruled he had controlled the ball with his arm before scoring.
Both goalkeepers were called into action again with Malafeyev saving well from Joe Cole and Robinson diving to keep out Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, but Malafeyev was powerless to stop Owen's second.
A huge clearance upfield from Rio Ferdinand was headed on by Heskey and Owen sent a crashing volley searing into the net from just inside the box.
Russia twice went close to scoring immediately after the break with Dmitry Sychev but despite the clever approach work of Andrei Arshavin, England held firm at the back where Ferdinand and Terry were commanding.
Ferdinand capped an outstanding 62nd international with his second international goal six minutes from time.
REUTERS BJR VC1100