Crouch has last laugh as his stature rises and rises

Jokes are consigned to past as Liverpool striker starts scoring with robotic regularity

Those readers who are easily shocked had better sit down because this might surprise them. In the absence of Wayne Rooney, England's most important striker is Peter Crouch.

Cue a million kitchen walls spattered with spluttered cornflakes, but the player who was booed when he made his home debut for the England team and dismissed as a freak of nature who could not score for club or country, has metamorphosed in a matter of days into a player of international significance.

A hat-trick to his name yesterday, no England footballer will go into the World Cup finals with greater impetus. As recently as Tuesday, Crouch seemed destined to be the shock tactic up Sven Goran Eriksson's sleeve, a substitute with the power to un-nerve defences with his 6ft 7in frame. Now he seems certain to start against Paraguay next Saturday and, if he continues in the same vein, might retain his place if Rooney's metatarsal mends.

This is a notable transformation even for his notoriously fickle profession, but since Eriksson became the last person in the land to realise that Michael Owen is not equipped to be a lone striker, Crouch's stock has rocketed. He scored with an impressive turn and shot against Hungary and against a hapless Jamaica, his contribution was outstanding. Even the curmudgeonly, Alan Hansen, who is not known for lavishing praise on strikers described him as England's most influential player.

True, Jamaica's hopeless defending could have gilded the efforts of a Sunday pub team, but Owen still looked short of zest when held up against the Reggae Boyz while Crouch oozed confidence. Whether it was the goal against Hungary or because his robotic dancing became a national talking point, but for the first time, the Liverpool striker looked comfortable under the searchlight scrutiny of playing for England.

"I enjoyed myself more today than I have in the past," Crouch admitted. "I'm sure I'll get criticised again, but it's one of those things that comes with playing with England. Playing with Michael worked very well. I enjoy it every time we play together so hopefully we can form a partnership. It's a good blend, we complement each other."

You have to be under the influence or be in touch with your self-belief to Dad- dance in front of 70,000 people, yet Crouch indulged in another reprise yesterday of the moves he first unveiled full length and fabulous at the recent Beckingham Palace party, marking his third, fourth and fifth goals in seven matches in his country's colours, in the 29th and 67th and 88th minutes. Frankly, he had no need to bring further attention to himself; he had already made an impression by playing a part in nearly all England's six goals.

The restoration of David Beckham into a player of world class value over the last week was built on his crosses, but it is no coincidence that England players are getting on the end of them because Crouch's presence is diverting attention of defenders. Yesterday, he was not only providing a distraction but figuring in the build-up. It was his header after 10 minutes that gave Owen the space to pass to Frank Lampard for England's first goal and Crouch controlled the ball on his chest and swept the ball to the wing in the build-up to Beckham's free-kick for the second.

Steven Gerrard, who has daily witnessed his Liverpool colleague's efforts to develop as a player, attributed England's improvement to Crouch's inclusion. "We looked more solid today," he said, "and with Peter up there we had more options. Michael is running in behind and Peter's hold-up play is getting better all the time. He's so difficult to play against if we get the right balls through to him."

In October, Crouch's appearance in an England shirt seemed an injudicious whim of the manager and Old Trafford jeered nearly every touch in the World Cup qualifier against Austria. Yesterday, the Theatre of Dreams rose to applaud him and even took his efforts at a penalty, a fluffed attempt at a chip that sailed over the bar, in good heart.

The Mancunian crowd greeted that mistake with mirth, just as they had when he broke into his dancing. The difference was they used to laugh at Peter Crouch; yesterday they were laughing with him.

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