Creative Crouch wins over doubters

Liverpool's tall enigma looks forward to grasping the 'massive opportunity' thrust on him
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Peter Crouch's first international goal arrived 11 minutes after he came on as a substitute for Wayne Rooney. Replacing the wunderkind for at least the initial stages of next month's World Cup may prove a tougher ask; so much so that in the next seven days Crouch faces the last in a series of highly public auditions.

Once Rooney collapsed on what may yet go down in English football history as Black Saturday, Sven Goran Eriksson's instinct was always to pair Crouch with Michael Owen in a classic large-and-little combination. They had worked well together on the former's debut in the United States a year ago and on his late appearances as a substitute against Poland and Argentina last autumn, his ability to head balls on or down to Owen proving as useful as the sheer distraction caused to defenders by his unfamiliar presence. "I'm not your average-looking footballer," the 6ft 5in striker admitted last week.

It was significant, however, that although Crouch has had less rest than almost anyone else in the squad, having played in the FA Cup final and then gone straight to a week's training camp in Portugal, Eriksson threw him into the B international at Reading last Thursday. Owen having been unavailable for the only full international since Christmas - the game against Uruguay in March, when Crouch came on to head the equaliser - the head coach clearly did not wish to pass up any opportunity to reunite them.

Reviews were mixed, but they usually are where Crouch is concerned, a good proportion of critics and supporters (he was booed when taking the field in the Poland game) refusing to accept that he is of international class. Overall, however, he made a reasonable impression and there was even a pleasant negating of stereotypes: Crouch worked the goalkeeper after taking the ball on his chest and volleying it from 30 yards, and on one occasion drew gasps with the dexterity of his footwork, while Owen was the one who headed against the bar to set up England's goal.

Eriksson will certainly pair them again for one of this week's friendly matches at Old Trafford, against Hungary (Tuesday) and Jamaica (Saturday), though it is quite possible that as well as wanting to guide Theo Walcott over the hurdle of a first senior international, he will also experiment with the alternative to Little and Large, which is playing one of the midfielders further upfield as a support striker. When the squad was named, Eriksson suggested Joe Cole for that role, only to have his options broadened by Steven Gerrard's stunning performance while rampaging forward in the FA Cup final. Either way, there would be room for Michael Carrick - adequate on Thursday, though he surrendered possession with worrying frequency - as the most defensive midfielder, allowing Frank Lampard greater licence to move forward.

Lampard would certainly enjoy that, recalling as he doubtless does the equivalent two friendly matches in Manchester immediately before setting off for Euro 2004. The first, in which he sat back as the holding man in a midfield diamond, was a disappointing 1-1 draw against Japan, prompting Alan Hansen to announce on BBC television: "Frank can't play in that position". Four days later Gerrard and Lampard shared attacking and defensive responsibilities in a flatter midfield quartet, both excelling as an admittedly weak Iceland side were thumped 6-1. The diamond, far from being forever, has rarely been brought out of the tactical drawer since, though Gerrard and Lampard have still not conclusively proved that they are an ideal pairing.

"I haven't programmed every-thing for the next 90 minutes," Eriksson says. "I'm going to start the best XI, and then we'll see how things go." It has to be assumed that until the day Rooney is sufficiently fit to return on a huge stage, the best XI includes Crouch, who will only say: "I'm looking forward to playing a big role. It's a massive opportunity if handed a starting role in the first game of the World Cup. It's a cliché, but it's what you always dream about as a boy. Playing in an FA Cup final was one and the World Cup's another. Hopefully, I can achieve both those goals in one season."

Goals are a touchy point when the name of Crouch arises. Just that one against Uruguay in five internationals and a modest eight in 32 Premiership games for Liverpool do not add up to striking of the highest order, even Eriksson admitting: "Crouch will probably never score a lot of goals. But he will create a lot."

What a season at Anfield has done for him, especially with a dozen Champions' League games, is to heighten self-belief, so that while acknowledging the opinions of his numerous detractors, he is no longer in danger of being undermined by them: "I've definitely had knocks in the past and you have to get over these things. I'd like to think with the character I've got I've done that and I don't think anything can knock me down now.

"When I first went to Liverpool people were saying I'd be coming off the bench, but I've started pretty much all season. I've managed to change people's opinions there and at Southampton, so hopefully I can do the same with England."

It was on friendly Merseyside territory that he finally broke his international duck, earning the standing ovation common at Anfield in recognition of his efforts. This week's task: to win over Old Trafford.