Having looked at Fabio Capello’s options on the wings in his last piece Jamie Smith moves further up the pitch to the strikers, where Michael Owen is beginning to force his way back into the reckoning.
Strangely, for a manager who seems to be so organised, so considered and generally excellent at his job, it seems odd that Fabio Capello has stated his desire to take only four striker to the World Cup.
Although it was arguably Sven Goran Eriksson’s inclusion of the half-fit Wayne Rooney that cost England in the last Finals, rather than only having four strikers available, with hindsight, not having another forward option was a huge mistake. As one of the four was the untested Theo Walcott and another was injury-prone hitman Michael Owen, the decision to leave Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent at home looked foolish at the time and was later proved to be so as England toiled to an inevitable penalty shoot-out defeat against Portugal.
In the four years since that tournament, no new Rooneys have broken through and Capello is left with mostly the same players, with none of the younger strikers really forcing their way into his plans so far this season.
Wayne Rooney continues to improve as a line-leader for both club and country but is at his best playing off another, more physical striker who is willing to do the leg work further up the pitch. The Liverpudlian naturally drifts out to the channels and comes deep to pick up possession and get involved, so England need a disciplined man who can win the ball in the air and hold it up for long enough for other players to get up in support. Rooney’s fitness is key for England and keeping the mercurial striker fit will be one of Fabio Capello’s biggest challenges. An injury to Rooney would scupper England’s hopes completely. England rely on him totally and losing him would be a huge blow.
Emile Heskey has come to be the man chosen to play with Rooney and it has worked well throughout the qualifying campaign. Heskey may not be a goalscorer but he links the play well and always occupies defenders. Defenders always have their hands full trying to cope with his strength and that leaves room for midfielders to push into and for Rooney to exploit.
However, Heskey’s move to Aston Villa in January of last year doesn’t look to have been a good one. He only ever looked to have been a short-term buy for Villa, who were missing John Carew through injury, and when the Norwegian returned to fitness, Heskey found himself unable to break back into the team.
He has scored a couple of goals recently, but still looks a long way away from being a regular starter for Martin O’Neill. If Heskey wants to start for England in South Africa he will have to leave Villa next month. A return to previous club Wigan would suit all parties involved.
Carlton Cole, a figure of fun for some and a genuine contender to fill Heskey’s boots for others, is currently out with a knee problem. It’s terrible timing for the West Ham striker, who would have hoped to have impressed Capello enough to earn a place on the plane. But it seems likely that he will now be overlooked unless he can make a successful return to fitness and form sooner rather than later.
Another Hammers striker who will be cursing his luck is Dean Ashton. Ashton was seen by some, including this writer, to be the long-term successor to Alan Shearer, but persistent injury problems have left him on the verge of an early retirement. Brilliant with his back to goal, good with both feet and a calm finisher, had Ashton stayed fit he would have been at a big club by now and probably playing for England in place of Heskey. But it was not to be for the former Crewe man.
Such is England’s lack of a genuine contender for Heskey’s place that Bobby Zamora is being hastily touted by his manager, possible next England boss Roy Hodgson, as a possible option. Zamora is a decent player and will occupy defenders but lacks the finishing finesse to make it in the international arena. Kevin Davies has long been suggested but bluster will only get you so far and he is struggling for goals this season. James Beattie’s fitness problems put paid to any anorexic chances he had of being called up, while the recent well-publicised row with Tony Pulis will have done nothing for his reputation. If players of the class of Zamora, Beattie and Davies are seriously being considered, England may as well stay at home.
Peter Crouch is the only serious option and boasts a respectable scoring record for England, albeit mostly against the smaller nations. But given the vast majority of his starts have come against teams outside football’s elite, it’s not possible to write him off. Crouch will certainly be in Capello’s squad, although he will have concerns over his inability to hold down a regular place in the starting line-up at Spurs. Crouch is another England man who may be eyeing up a move in the January transfer window.
For all England’s problems finding a big target man to play with Rooney, there is a wealth of smaller, nippier players. But although Capello will need pace in his side, especially in midfield and from the flanks, and Rooney has enough pace for the attack. Strength and power will be a more important commodity for Rooney’s partner.
Jermain Defoe is in pole position to be on the plane if not in the team after a very bright start to the season. His five goals against Wigan recently showed his quality in the box, although he sometimes struggles to make an impact against big clubs and his doubters would expect the same on the international stage. However, his movement has come on leaps and bounds and if he can keep up his goalscoring form throughout the season and hit twenty league goals, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for Capello to leave him at home.
Darren Bent was hugely unlucky not to go to the last World Cup after he finished the preceding league season as the Premier League’s top English goalscorer after 18 league goals for Charlton, but his luck will be out again this summer. Bent will have to score more goals than Defoe to be considered and his lack of an international goal in his five fleeting appearances so far counts against him. He also failed to impress against Brazil in the friendly in Doha, although conditions were difficult and his service non-existent. That was his big chance to impress Capello and he didn’t take it. Barring injury to Rooney or Defoe, Bent will be watching from home.
Another player who can book his holidays is Gabby Agbonlahor. Quicker than Defoe but less composed when presented with a chance, the Villa man would be something of a wild card option, as would his team mate Ashley Young. Although a January move to Arsenal has been mooted, Agbonlahor simply lacks the finishing skill to be an international forward. But he has plenty of potential and Capello will have an eye on him for the European Championships in 2012.
So then. Inevitably, as we will until he retires, we look to Michael Owen. The surprise move to Manchester United after his disastrous spell at Newcastle came to an end raised eyebrows but of late we’ve been treated to a more familiar sight of Owen – him sat on the bench. Sir Alex Ferguson has been protective of the striker and has seemed to not want to partner him with either Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov. Which begs the question – why did he sign him? But Owen has produced the goods when he has been selected. His substitute appearance in the Manchester derby yielded a stunning late equaliser and he rolled back the years with a delightful goal against Barnsley in the Carling Cup. But chances of impressing have been light until this week.
Ferguson sent a mixture of his reserves and youngsters to Germany to play the final round of the group stage in the Champions’ League and Owen came up trumps with a hat-trick ina 3-1 win against Wolfsburg. He’ll be back on the bench for the weekend visit of Aston Villa but this week’s impressive performance will mean Ferguson will be more willing to turn to him in future. And with the busy Christmas period fast approaching, more starts could be on the way for Owen. Seven goals this season puts him three ahead of Berbatov and it could be only a matter of time until Ferguson trials the Owen/Rooney partnership that England fans have salivated at the prospect of for so long.
Put simply, Owen is England’s most natural finisher, a born goalscorer. It would either be brave or mad of Capello to not take him should he be fit and in decent form. Just think to the possible quarter-final showdown with France. It’s 1-1 with twenty minutes to go. Heskey has toiled all game and is knackered. Capello turns to his bench. Who do you want to be tying their boots and pulling on the jersey? Who’s going to get you the goal? Crouch? Defoe? Really?
The choice is clear. Owen must go to the World Cup. It will mean sacrificing an extra midfield player but Capello can pick his squad men carefully, ensuring he still has cover for all positions, by picking versatile men like James Milner. Being able to pick five strikers, plus Theo Walcott who can play up front, and have Owen, a proven world-class player on the bench, could make all the difference in the big moments in South Africa.