Eriksson tells Owen to lead from the front

International Football: Liverpool striker leads out the side at Anfield as the youngest England captain since 1963
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The Independent Online

Unlike one of his recent predecessors Sven Goran Eriksson believes you only get one life. That, he explained yesterday, is why he accepted challenges like ski-jumping in his youth, and the responsibility of managing England in middle age.

A similar principle underpins Michael Owen's philosophy. Believing he would only get one chance to maximise his talent, he has eschewed the indiscipline of some contemporaries to dedicate himself to his profession. Tonight, against Paraguay, the 22-year-old will be rewarded with the honour of becoming the youngest England captain since Bobby Moore in May 1963.

While the West Ham legend led the team out in distant Bratislava, Owen will do so at Anfield, his footballing home since he was 13. Yesterday, speaking at England's hotel deep in the Cheshire countryside he knows so well, Owen professed himself delighted and surprised. Both he and Eriksson stressed the decision was a one-off, that even if David Beckham is not fit when the World Cup starts, Owen would not necessarily retain the armband. But while Rio Ferdinand or Sol Campbell, who Eriksson hinted would have been captain tonight were he fit, may be in charge come June, there is every reason to think Owen might one day lead his country on a permanent basis even if he is unlikely to follow Moore in doing so 90 times.

"He is a clean, young, talented footballer who will be in the squad for many years," Eriksson said. "I am not a moralist. I am not saying you have to go to Sunday morning church to be captain of England, but he has the right qualities and is an ambassador for English football."

Like Beckham, Owen's off-field behaviour is beyond reproach. He is usually composed on the pitch and, having quelled a youthful flash of temper which twice saw him dismissed, has never even been cautioned playing for England's seniors.

"I don't go on the pitch thinking I have got to be an ambassador," said Owen, "but I try to do things the right way. I want to be a top-class footballer so I live the life that enables me to be that."

Eriksson added: "He is the future. We will see if he can be a great leader but when you have this honour you usually grow as a person and a player."

This was certainly the case with Beckham and it has been with most England captains. Owen is judged on his goals and history supported Eriksson when he said: "It will not detract from his goalscoring."

Eriksson mentioned the example of Roberto Mancini, his captain at Sampdoria and Lazio, but he could have listed every attack-minded England captain for 40 years. Since Kevin Keegan, whose goalscoring ratio remained constant, that of Gary Lineker showed a marginal improvement and those of Alan Shearer, David Platt, Bryan Robson and, especially, Beckham significantly improved.

To date Owen has won 33 caps and scored 14 goals, figures which would look better were it not for 10 substitute appearances and a further 12 which have been cut short.

He may not play 90 minutes tonight, either, as Eriksson is still trying to seek the agreement of Cesare Maldini, Paraguay's Italian manager, to use as many as 11 substitutes.

Eriksson, already missing Beckham, Ferdinand, Campbell, Emile Heskey and Ashley Cole, has promised to start with the best of the rest. The main question is how to replace Beckham. His strongest midfield appears to be Steven Gerrard, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Kieron Dyer but West Ham's Trevor Sinclair or Owen Hargreaves of Bayern Munich could come in for Butt with Gerrard remaining in the centre.

That is where Gerrard yesterday said he wanted to play but he accepted the absence of Beckham loaded more responsibility on the rest of the team and could mean changes. The 21-year-old added: "It is a bit of a worry that we have not played that well since the Germany game but the manager's been trying things. It is important we find that level soon because the World Cup is only six weeks away."

England are without a win in six months and four matches and Eriksson confirmed: "It is not easy in friendly games but I hope we start to have the right attitude again, like we did in qualification. I would like to see some fire on the pitch."

England's opponents are also without their leader, the inspirational goalkeeper Luis Chilavert. In his absence the onus will be on the experienced AEK Athens defender, Carlos Gamarra, and the promising Bayern Munich striker, Roque Santa Cruz.

They are among the few Paraguayans to have forged a successful career in Europe. Among those who have tried and failed is midfielder Diego Gavilan, who Kieron Dyer may recall occasionally sharing the dressing room at St James' Park before being shipped back across the Atlantic.

This match has been arranged to give England experience against South American opposition ahead of the World Cup and, although Paraguay are dissimilar in style to Argentina, the younger players should find it instructive.

The one previous meeting, in the second round of the 1986 World Cup, ended in a 3-0 win for England with Lineker scoring twice. The odds are on a repeat and few would bet against Owen being on the scoresheet. Otherwise Eriksson may begin to worry that like ski-jumping, in which he attained 70m, not far short of the distance later reached by Eddie the Eagle, managing England is all downhill.

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