Defoe proves sound choice for new era

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The Independent Online

Painful memories of Baden-Baden, Gelsenkirchen and bemusing tactical experiments were not a prerequisite for venting a summer of frustration on Greece last night. As Jermain Defoe proved, you did not even have to make the cut under Sven Goran Eriksson in Germany to help to launch the Steve McClaren era while increasing the regret over what might have been.

Rarely has an England international embarked upon a new era with as much grievance as the Tottenham striker did against the reigning European champions here. Ushered out of Eriksson's training camp when Wayne Rooney flew back on a private jet from a private clinic with a very public prognosis on his healed metatarsal, Defoe headed unnoticed for the Caribbean, where his World Cup summer involved little more than playing keep-ups on the sand. Meanwhile, as though to pour humiliation upon disappointment, an untested and ultimately unused 17-year-old, Theo Walcott, took his place instead.

The reasons for that particular folly remain a mystery to all but Eriksson, though the central midfielders whom he refused to part have wasted little time in expressing their views on that matter in their recent autobiographies. Steven Gerrard is adamant Walcott had no right to the fourth striker's berth in Germany, while Frank Lampard highlights Defoe's omission as a calamitous mistake. McClaren has made his position clear, moving Walcott to the Under-21s and a goalscoring performance against Moldova on Tuesday, and promoting Defoe to his first starting line-up as England manager.

Defoe had sympathy and hindsight on his side last night, but he still had international credentials to establish. After a hesitant start he succeeded in that respect although, as the England manager had insisted beforehand, recovering from the World Cup hangover is a lengthy process and judgement must be reserved.

The 23-year-old, however, showed that he would at least have provided the option that Eriksson clearly could not trust from Walcott this summer, playing a key role in creating Lampard's goal against Greece with a fine run and pass down the left and intelligently retrieving play to allow Stewart Downing to cross for Peter Crouch's first and England's third. Add to that the pace that unsettled the visiting defence and an awareness to seek every pass from Gerrard and others, and this was a night when the former West Ham forward delivered his own, quiet rebuke to Eriksson.

When Defoe's name was mentioned to the Swede in the post-Portugal inquest as a more proven alternative to Walcott, Eriksson replied: "I don't think so. If I thought that I would have picked Defoe and I have seen him 15 or 20 times this season." He then concluded his final press conference as England manager with the assessment that the nation is suffering from a dearth of quality strikers.

As a defence for his response to that shortage - four strikers for a World Cup finals and only one of them meeting match fitness and the experience of the Premiership, Crouch - Eriksson's argument was as convincing as his tactics. In the absence of Rooney and Michael Owen, however, it is a problem that McClaren has inherited but perhaps, in the partnership of Defoe and Crouch, immediately rectified.

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