After four months in Spain's capital, Michael Owen is adapting to life with Real Madrid in many ways. He is settling down, scoring goals and making friends. However, he freely admits that there is one part of his new existence that still terrifies him: speaking Spanish. Even worse is speaking it in public. The England striker says he gets far more nervous at the prospect of making a speech to his team-mates in Spanish than he does about playing in front of 80,000 notoriously hard-to-please fans at the Bernabeu.
"There was a team dinner the other day and all the new players had to get up and say something," he recalled yesterday. "Me, Jonathan [Woodgate] and Walter Samuel, we all had to make a little speech. The problem was that I only got told in the morning. I didn't have much time to prepare and Jonathan's Spanish is a lot better than mine so he got by just saying a few lines.
"I was a bit more nervous, so I wrote a bit of a longer speech, but had to read most of it out and then had to throw in the odd Spanish swearword to make sure everyone laughed. The other thing we all had to do is to pay for the dinner and everyone was drinking expensive drinks so I wasn't too happy about that either."
With the statistics-obsessed Spanish press making much of the fact that the former Liverpool man has the best strike-rate in the league, outperforming not only Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o but also his Real Madrid team-mates Ronaldo and Raul, Owen knows he can afford to make a joke or two at his own expense, especially when it comes to learning a new language. "I was meant to have a lesson before I came into training this morning but because of the night out at the dinner I overslept. I woke up with my Spanish teacher ringing the doorbell and I answered it about half an hour too late, so she was stuck out in the cold. I had to apologise to her and she's given me some extra lines to do"
He may not be the ideal language student, but Owen had certainly been doing his best on the pitch.
Ever since he broke his duck at Real by scoring a crucial goal against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions' League, the former European Footballer of the Year has made sure his name has appeared on the scoresheet. A superbly taken winner against last season's champions Valencia, another in the Cup and four more deftly executed efforts in the league have put an end to any discussion over whether or not he is worthy of a place amongst the galacticos.
The leading sports daily Marca has christened him "Killer Owen" and went into panic mode this week when one of their army of photographers that keep vigil at every Real Madrid training session spotted a lump on his thigh that was thought to indicate a muscle injury. "The only problem is that the shorts that we wear in Spain are a lot shorter than in England so no one has noticed before," Owen chuckled. "It happened six years ago when I played against Leicester City and someone kicked me with the bottom of their boot with their studs on my leg and it caused a little hole in the muscle. At the time I felt it, but it didn't stop me from playing. I think it's fluid or something, but the doctors have never been worried and I can never feel it and it's not a concern."
Despite the fact that he is proving deadlier in front of goal than either Ronaldo or Raul, Owen has yet to overtake his team-mates in the pecking order at Real. But he remains philosophical about his position and knows that statistics could also turn into his enemy in the future. "I don't know if I am the most effective striker," he says. "I saw an article in the paper about my goals per minute the other day, but that's what I came here for - to score goals. That's my job. Statistics can work in your favour, but there are different ways of twisting things to make things look good or bad. I'm very pleased with the amount of goals I've scored in the amount of time I've played and I want to continue like that and get even better."
As regards to whether or not he has done enough to earn a regular place in the starting XI, Owen neatly sidesteps the issue and makes a typically diplomatic response. "You'll have to ask the manager that question," he smiles. "Every time I'm told to play I'm very happy and I want to score goals and obviously I'm disappointed when I don't play. But I don't think you would have much respect from your fellow players if you kept saying that you should be in the team."
There is, however, a quiet assurance about the 24-year-old that indicates he is confident of eventually achieving his objective.
"All I can do is to try and do my talking on the pitch and persuade the manager by my actions that I can play in the first team. But it is not for me to rock the boat and say who should or shouldn't be playing. From a football point of view, though, I don't think I could ask much more of myself - it's been a very good start for me."