The England squad is far better fortified than the Wolfsburg penalty area. Michael Owen may have got through for a hat-trick on Tuesday night, but opportunities are harder to come by when a player tries to search out a place in Fabio Capello’s plans. The Manchester United attacker’s display in Germany was no more than a promising start in the bid to return to the international reckoning.
Owen did at least make an advance. As much as the goals, Capello would have taken notice of the player’s condition. In stoppage time Owen still had the energy to make the long run on the break that brought his third goal. There was pleasing devilment, too, as he tricked the goalkeeper Diego Benaglio before finishing.
It corroborated Sir Alex Ferguson’s claim that Owen had been increasingly to the fore in training. Nonetheless, Capello would be ditching his usual stringency if he suddenly declared that Owen now meets all the criteria. In mid-December, an attacker who turns 30 next week has scored just twice in the Premier League. On each occasion, he did so as a substitute.
If he has not made the grade with his club, why should he be treated as the key to England’s hopes at the World Cup? Ferguson could counter by arguing that Owen is coming good at exactly the right time. As always, though, Capello will exercise a vigorous scepticism. There are few spare berths for forwards.
The Italian may well take just four attackers to South Africa. He had Emile Heskey forming a productive partnership with Wayne Rooney in the qualifiers. The respective understudies may be Peter Crouch or Carlton Cole and Jermain Defoe. There may be no need for anyone else since Steven Gerrard, for instance, could take over the duties of an absent Rooney.
Owen, in effect, could have to displace Defoe. In some ways, that contest is a mismatch. The Tottenham attacker does not have a comparable knack for assessing defenders and exploiting their weaknesses. He also lacks the wealth of experience at the top level that Owen has amassed.
Defoe, all the same, is younger, less prone to strains and in the midst of a productive spell. He has scored five goals for England over four appearances this season. They have all not been trivial either, since it was his strikes in August that delivered a 2-2 draw in Amsterdam against a more highly-ranked Holland side.
Still, Owen’s ears might have pricked up when he heard the manager qualifying the accolades a little that day. Capello certainly had compliments to pay, but he also added that footballers of Defoe’s build get fit fast and are ready to make an impact early in the season.
Owen himself might once, like Defoe, have been naturally sharp, but everything has come harder now that he is older and battle-scarred. The older man does still have his advantages. It is true that he may struggle to be picked for United from the kick-off when Dimitar Berbatov and Rooney are fit, but, conversely, the club, as they did in Wolfsburg, can regularly give Owen the sort of stage that Defoe is yet to tread.
If the competition for places is more exacting at Old Trafford than it is at White Hart Lane then so, too, must be the standards that have to be met. With United, there is the prospect of being regarded as one of the elite because major trophies are at stake. While he certainly is in competition with Rooney and Berbatov, there are days, too, when one of them will use his creativity to show the sharpshooter Owen in the best possible light.
The schedule for the next few weeks is rather appealing, too, with fixtures that should offer a striker chances to hone his statistics. In truth, of course, we do not know if the wiser Owen can ever be a match for the scintillating opportunist of years gone by, but the switch from St James’ Park to Old Trafford did challenge the assumption that he was as much on the slide as Newcastle United.
There are factors, of course, that are beyond his control. England have just one friendly before the close of the club season, so it could be that Capello will conclude it is too late to reconsider his options. Owen, for his part, will have to continue being a dependable scorer if Tuesday in Wolfsburg is not to be written off as an illusory flashback to days that are truly gone forever.No tags for this post.