Owen can't silence the talk of a real repatriation

Strain in Spain: 'Sometimes I'm happy, then I'm a bit low'

If Michael Owen was exhilarated by what has become a rare privilege these days, a full complement of playing minutes, he concealed it well on Wednesday night as he departed Villa Park. His detachment from England's two other notional "strikers", Wayne Rooney and Shaun Wright-Phillips, during a goal-less, guileless (on the part of Sven Goran Eriksson) friendly with Holland, reflected his early months at the Bernabeu, when he was too frequently restricted to under- studying Ronaldo and Raul.

If Michael Owen was exhilarated by what has become a rare privilege these days, a full complement of playing minutes, he concealed it well on Wednesday night as he departed Villa Park. His detachment from England's two other notional "strikers", Wayne Rooney and Shaun Wright-Phillips, during a goal-less, guileless (on the part of Sven Goran Eriksson) friendly with Holland, reflected his early months at the Bernabeu, when he was too frequently restricted to under- studying Ronaldo and Raul.

He may not be sickening from anything other than sad neglect, but while the former Liverpool man remains in the isolation ward at Real Madrid there will be increasing concern about the health of England's most potent striker.

Owen does diplomacy with long-practised professionalism and proclaimed his happiness at the state of affairs in Spain, though it was hardly Ken Dodd's interpretation of the word. When it was suggested that it was far from the best preparation for next year's World Cup to be repeatedly confined to the bench, he said tartly: "It won't be the best, but I'm very positive that won't be the case."

Because by then he will have completely persuaded Madrid's latest coach, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, of his merit? Or because he may be back in the old country?

Another week, another link with a return to England for Owen; on this occasion, the rumours reinforced by Jose Antonio Reyes's alleged declaration that he would welcome repatriation in Spain, and that Owen would move to Arsenal. Reyes may have been the subject of mischief by a Spanish radio station when, thinking he was talking to Madrid's sporting director, Emilio Butragueño, he said it had been "a dream since a child to play for Real Madrid", but his performances of late would appear to confirm that he is not entirely enamoured with life at Highbury.

Unless such a deal transpires, Owen will presumably review his position in the summer. "I take stock all the time," he insists. "Every day of the week, you look at yourself; you're trying to get in the team, and every training session you do, you're trying to push yourself into the thoughts of the manager. Some months, I'm happy. I feel as though I'm in the team, I'm a regular fixture and things are looking up. The next month I might be on the bench and I feel a bit low in myself."

He adds: "It is frustrating, although I played a full 90 minutes only 10 days ago [in the league, when Ronaldo was unavailable]. I've played a part in nearly every game. It's just that a lot have been from the bench. Although the last few months haven't been perfect, I'm not missing out on the goalscoring [he currently has eight in all competitions]. I'm just missing out on minutes on the pitch."

That, ostensibly, was the reason Eriksson offered him 90 minutes ahead of next month's World Cup qualifiers, though in doing so he restricted Andy Johnson to an international introduction on the right. It was a debut that will be remembered primarily only for Johnson's applause of Gary Neville (after the defender's wretched cross had found Edwin van der Sar's comfortable grasp) and the raising of his own hands in apology (after committing the same crime). A one-cap wastrel? We will see, though Eriksson did the Crystal Palace striker no favours with that deployment when the second half degener-ated into an formless display.

In a game of two centre- halves - Wes Brown and Jamie Carragher - who demonstrated their potential as a pairing which will probably never be utilised again, Owen was never going to emulate the power in Eriksson's experiment that Eidur Gudjohnsen and Didier Drogba provide at the pinnacle of the front three at Chelsea; certainly not when he was so remote at times, with Rooney and Wright-Phillips foragers more than forwards.

"It was different for me," Owen reflected guardedly. "I suppose when you are going well and really dominating teams, and it looks like you've got three real attacking players, it can be fantastic. But when you're playing against a top team, you need all hands to the pump as well. Often we needed the other strikers for defending. So sometimes that left me on my own."

Despite the torrent of condemnation which has assailed Eriksson, the expectation is that normal service, a 4-4-2 line-up, will be resumed in next month's Saturday-Wednesday double-header against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan. Only defeat in those, or desperately impoverished performances, will jeopardise his tenure.

At least there could be no criticism of Eriksson's selection of Wright-Phillips, who, making his first start, was again persuasive, the Man-chester City man's intimidating pace and dancing feet a constant first-half distraction for the Holland right-back, Jan Kromkamp. Whether the coach will subconsciously forgive those abject rejections of excellent opportunities will be fascinating to witness.

It doesn't stretch the imagination too greatly to speculate what England's leading scorer would have made of them. Owen's sharpness at club level appears to have lost nothing in translation into Spanish, but will it survive constant relegation to the substitutes' bench?

The striker's dissatisfaction has not been aided by a revolving door of managers, Jose Antonio Camacho resigning and yielding to his assistant, Mariano Garcia Remon, who was replaced only three months later by the former Brazil coach Luxem-burgo. "I played eight or nine games on the spin under the previous manager, and scored seven goals," he says. "But then he left. What has happened has not been ideal. But it looks as though this manager is here to stay - he's had some good results already."

Whether Owen will stay beyond the summer is rather less clear. On a lighter note, he talked of his daughter Gemma, who is about to attend nursery for the first time. Will it be his own pattering feet heard scampering back to England? That is something numerous clubs, and one particular international coach, would be fascinated to learn.

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