Michael Owen exposed a fundamental rift at the heart of Sven Goran Eriksson's England last night by insisting the team's turgid performances are solely to blame for his failure to make an impact at this World Cup.
The Newcastle United forward had kept a low profile in Germany as he concentrated on rediscovering form and fitness after five months out with a broken metatarsal but, after being withdrawn early for the second successive game against Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday evening, he delivered a blunt critique of his form that runs contrary to that offered by the England manager.
Eriksson identified Owen's failure to retain possession and make the right moves as reasons for his 56th-minute substitution against Paraguay, while a lack of match practice and Peter Crouch's height advantage were offered as factors in his early departure against T&T. With Wayne Rooney free to start the final group game against Sweden next Tuesday, according to the Swede, Owen's once assured place in the England team is now under serious threat, with Crouch essential to Eriksson's long-ball approach.
The 26-year-old, however, not one for courting controversy, dismissed concerns over his fitness and insists he can improve without having to alter his game, provided the team begin to concentrate on his strengths. "We're obviously not firing on all cylinders yet - me or the team and I'm reliant on the team," said Owen. "If the team aren't playing well, then I'm not getting chances and I'll probably be the quietest man on the pitch because I won't come back and be pleasing on the eye just for the sake of it."
Owen missed a glorious chance to open the scoring against T&T and was substituted seconds later as Rooney made his long-awaited entrance. But he said: "I'm not disappointed with the way I played. I'm in the team to be in the box and if the balls come in the box and I'm not on the end of them you can blame me."
Owen continued: "I've had one chance in the game, with my head, and I'm kicking myself because I didn't score it. I had one that rebounded off me, but I wouldn't class that as a chance. I'm still a decent finisher. I'm playing well but if it means bringing me off and putting Wayne on then that's the manager's decision."
Eriksson will reconsider his plan to field a weakened team against Sweden after Freddie Ljungberg's late winner against Paraguay on Thursday denied England top place in Group B, although what impact that will have on Owen's involvement remains to be seen, with Rooney, despite the manager's confidence, not match-fit.
"For me Michael Owen is getting better and better," Eriksson said. "I don't think he was tired. I wanted to change something because we hadn't scored a goal. It could have been Peter Crouch but the only thing they [Trinidad & Tobago] were good at was set pieces and we needed Crouch to mark [Dennis] Lawrence."
The Swede also denied claims that a disgruntled Owen had refused to shake hands at the end of the game. "He did shake hands."