Crouch must seize chance to win over Capello

England's skyscraper striker is used to playing understudy, but his scoring record merits a leading role

David Pleat loaned him to Dulwich Hamlet, David O'Leary forced him out of Aston Villa and Rafael Benitez froze him out altogether. Peter Crouch has seen enough managers come and go that Fabio Capello's sudden pronouncement of trust in him yesterday will not faze a player who is constantly told that he must prove himself at international level.

Despite his 14 goals for England, Crouch is still a man regarded as on the outside, even one fortunate to be busy in international week. Yet he has by far the best goals ratio to minutes spent on the pitch for England – his strike rate is a goal every 124 minutes. Only Michael Owen gets close (one goal every 155 minutes) ahead of Wayne Rooney (one every 164 minutes) and then there is Emile Heskey way back on one goal every 493 minutes he spends on the pitch for England.

Tonight against Ukraine will be the first time Capello has started with Crouch and it has taken injuries to Heskey, Carlton Cole and yesterday Darren Bent to convince the England manager to pick the man from Portsmouth in this 2010 World Cup qualifier. Crouch's goalscoring statistics should be more reassuring for Capello: he has 14 goals in 32 caps for England but only 14 of those caps have been starts. Show some confidence in him and Crouch is likely to reward a manager.

At 6ft 7in, Crouch does not have the muscle-bound build of Heskey but then, unlike Heskey, it does not take Crouch five and a half full games for England to score one goal. Crouch does not look like a goalscorer but that happens to be exactly what he is, albeit a goalscorer in a target man's body and it is as a target man that Crouch tends to be used by managers. Rooney and Steven Gerrard are the undoubted stars in Capello's side, but Crouch is more than just a support act.

Capello did not exactly heap praise upon Crouch yesterday; rather, he suggested that the job was his by default. "He [Crouch] has a different style," he said. "He is not Darren Bent, not Heskey, but we have to play with Crouch because he's now the best we have who can play." It was hardly a stirring vote of confidence but Crouch has long learnt to accept that England managers tend to turn to him when they have no other option.

Default England striker is not an unfamiliar role for Crouch. With Heskey, Carlton Cole and now Bent injured, he is again the last man standing. It was the same against Croatia in England's final Euro 2008 qualifier – that fateful Wembley night in November 2007 on which Steve McClaren's regime abruptly ended. England were without Rooney and Owen and, leading the line on his own, Crouch scored the equaliser that might have taken England to the finals were it not for Mladen Petric's winner.

Capello said he expected Ukraine to try to counter-attack so England needed a player of Crouch's capacity to keep them under pressure, although he intended to use the striker to make space for England's other attackers: "I think the most important thing is the movement of Gerrard, [Aaron] Lennon or David Beckham and Rooney. The movement near Crouch is very important. He can't do the same movement as Heskey, can't press like Heskey. But it will be very important for the movement of the others around him."

As well as the game against Croatia, one of Crouch's best performances for England was against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals when, after Rooney was sent off, he was obliged to lead the line on his own, holding the ball up to take the pressure off his nine remaining team-mates. Against Spain last month he struggled as a second-half substitute but tonight is a much more significant opportunity.

Even if Crouch scores tonight it probably will not be enough to lose the reputation that he does not get goals against decent opposition. Yet when he scored against Trinidad & Tobago at the 2006 World Cup, England were still goalless against the smallest team ever to compete at the tournament. He scored the only goal against Macedonia in a Euro 2008 qualifier in September 2006, without which that particular campaign would have been in big trouble a lot earlier.

It was for games such as tonight that Crouch left Liverpool last summer. He could have stayed as an understudy for Fernando Torres, but there was never any guarantee that he would play anything like a respectable amount of games so he took his chances and left. In a classic example of Crouchian misfortune, having arrived at Portsmouth, his manager, Harry Redknapp, left after six months and now they have an owner who wants to sell the club and a team fighting relegation.

Crouch left Liverpool simply because he wanted to play every week and, even at 28, it will be hard to shift the perception among some that he is the accidental footballer. The statistics say otherwise. Compare his England record of one goal every 124 minutes on the pitch to Alan Shearer (one every 182 minutes), Gary Lineker (one every 136 minutes) and even Sir Bobby Charlton (one every 193 minutes) and it stacks up well. Only his Portsmouth team-mate David Nugent can claim a better England ratio (one goal every 11 minutes) – although he has only ever played 11 minutes for England and it was against Andorra.

Perception is everything. Even in that recent Comic Relief sketch with the England players, the comedian James Corden picked on the safest target in the group with the opener: "Crouchy, when I look at you everything tells me you should be rubbish at football". He did so because Crouch is the easy-going type, although he has probably heard enough robot jokes to last a lifetime.

The robot-dance jokes will never stop and, anyway, it is Crouch who has to take the blame for that. Not so the perception that he is lucky to be in the England team. He has a glorious chance to change a few more minds tonight against Ukraine, and if he does so the most important convert could just be Capello.

If Crouch is injured... England's lean options

On Saturday Fabio Capello was forced to change Wayne Rooney's strike partner three times as a result of injury. With Peter Crouch due to start against Ukraine at Wembley tonight, how would England adapt if the injury demons struck again?

Gabriel Agbonlahor

The Aston Villa forward could lead the line in a straight swap for Crouch, despite recently losing his place in Martin O'Neill's side and finding the net only once in his last 17 outings.

Steven Gerrard

The Liverpool captain could move into a support striker role behind Rooney, although he seems settled on the left-hand side after impressing there on Saturday and in the last qualifier in Belarus.

* With the injury jinx striking fourth-choice Darren Bent in training yesterday, and Michael Owen out of match action, Capello's next best bet might be to send a message up to the ITV studio and tell Teddy Sheringham to get warmed up.

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