Football: World Cup - Time is ripe for Owen to blossom

After England's disappointing result against Romania, Glenn Hoddle must make some changes. By Glenn Moore
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STATISTICALLY, ENGLAND'S defeat to Romania on Monday changed nothing. In human terms it changed everything.

While England still have to take a point from Colombia in Lens on Friday, the same as if they had drawn or won in Toulouse, expectations of the team have been radically altered, and its approach and composition should be.

In public none of this is admitted by Glenn Hoddle. Having blamed "sloppy defending" for the defeat in its immediate aftermath yesterday he blamed "naive defending". He then insisted it was a good performance. It is time to blame himself and appraise his team's development honestly.

England have not played well since Rome in October, and then, it should be remembered, they drew 0-0. Contrary to myth, England did not tear the Azzurri to shreds, they held them at bay.

Since then they have beaten limited opponents in Cameroon, Morocco and Tunisia, scratched draws with Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and Belgium, been beaten by Chile and Romania, and been outplayed by the superior technicians of Portugal. Yes, Portugal were beaten 3-0 at Wembley in April, but their passing exposed England, and they just lacked Romania's defensive nous and attacking edge.

With Colombia also technically gifted, and the equally talented and more steely Argentina next in line, England's prospects do not look good - but it is not over. They do have good players, it is time to deploy them better.

Michael Owen must start on Friday. When he came on on Monday, Romania suddenly looked worried. The classy Iulian Filipescu, who had been marking Alan Shearer, switched to the teenager, leaving the less experienced Liviu Ciobotariu minding the England captain. The result was an Owen goal made by Shearer.

Yesterday Hoddle intimated that he might, indeed, start. "It was always on my mind to nurse him into the World Cup. He's learning quickly, he's off the mark and if he starts now the pressure will be on his shoulders but his confidence will be high. If he'd started two games and not scored people would be saying 'he's not ready'."

However, Hoddle quickly added that Teddy Sheringham 'had done nothing wrong'. After playing well against Tunisia it would be more accurate to say he did little right in Toulouse.

The time is right to play Owen. With Paul Gascoigne departed the need to play both Paul Ince and David Batty as cover, and Sheringham to link a deep midfield and otherwise isolated attack, is gone. With the more mobile David Beckham and Paul Scholes in midfield England can afford to play two up.

Ince's injury - and the omission of Nicky Butt - means that David Batty may survive for now but it is hard to see what he contributes against teams like Romania.

He cannot keep the ball except to move it sideways and, emasculated by more stringent refereeing, cannot niggle people. What is the point of having a Batty in the team if he does not take advantage of Gheorghe Hagi's early loss of temper? Booked after three minutes and still prepared to argue with the referee Hagi was ripe to see a red card as well as the red mist.

Instead, given Darren Anderton's fine performance on the right - justification for Hoddle's choice although he was exposed defensively on occasion - Beckham should continue in central midfield.

"He proved he is more than capable of doing a great job there," said Shearer yesterday. "He couldn't have done more, the rest is up to the manager."

Hoddle was more circumspect, going out of his way to also praise Anderton and Batty. The danger is that, with only a draw required, this essentially defensive coach will go out against Colombia looking for just that.