Eriksson trusts in Owen's experience and composure

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The Independent Football

It seems hard to believe that someone who can scarcely remember Gary Lineker's goals for his country on the grounds that he was too young could be the only fit and experienced midfielder or attacker England will employ in Macedonia tomorrow. But then Michael Owen has always been mature beyond his years.

He is the same age now that David Beckham was when he was sent off for the recklessly immature kick at Diego Simeone on the livid night in St Etienne when Owen's brilliant individualistic goal propelled him towards the spotlight at a pace even Wayne Rooney could not imagine. The Liverpool player was a teenager when he was BBC Sports Personality of the Year, 21 when acclaimed as the best footballer in Europe, a younger captain of his country than even Bobby Moore. England, without Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, and with Nicky Butt half-fit and Beckham unsure of even starting in Skopje, need the old head on young shoulders more perhaps than ever before.

That old head is close cropped these days. "We played Slovakia at Middlesbrough and I was going on holiday a couple of days later so I decided to have a summer haircut," he smiled. "I've never changed my barber - £4.50 if you're interested."

This is a big season for Owen, and a delicate one. He has let it be known that should Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions' League he may not sign the new contract the club is so eager to discuss. Before Saturday's Merseyside derby, Owen, without a goal in open play in three sterile matches, appeared a picture of frustration. Victory at Goodison and two beautifully-executed goals have lifted the mood.

"We didn't qualify for the Champions' League and we have got to put that right this year. The Champions' League is a minimum requirement," he said. "If we'd lost, we'd have had an international break for two weeks not having won a game and near the bottom. I feel a bit of pressure off my shoulders. The finishing wasn't there in the first three games but certainly Harry Kewell and a few others clicked against Everton."

He is too modest to point out that nobody clicked better than he did, which would be as welcome to Sven Goran Eriksson as it was to Gérard Houllier. Owen will start in Skopje, nothing is more certain, although the question of his partner remains as unclear as it has done since Alan Shearer's international retirement. The smart money in Macedonia is that the England head coach will gamble on Rooney rather than trust in the more reliable, but too often uninspiring, figure of Emile Heskey.

Since Owen did not finish the fixture with Turkey and Rooney lasted an hour against Slovakia, the embryonic cross-Merseyside partnership can hardly be said to have gelled: "We haven't seen Wayne's true colours yet. At the moment he can beat players and looks a decent finisher but he's still developing into an all-round player. It's early days. Before Slovakia every question was about whether Wayne was the best in the world and afterwards it was whether we were expecting too much of him.

"I don't know what everyone was expecting; certainly he'll have flashes of brilliance but you can't expect it every single game. He's 17 and he will develop if everyone lets him but he's not going to win games single-handed."

The pressure is mounting on Heskey, who despite the promise of a fine pre-season, has yet to score for Liverpool and some wonder for how much longer he can take the constant sniping about his ratio of goals to games.

Owen, however, is more confident. "He's a laid-back character, takes it well, and it doesn't seem to affect him but, no matter what people think, when Emile Heskey is on top of his game, there are few better players. I saw him two years ago when he had a patch of 10 games for Liverpool and I couldn't believe my eyes - there was nothing anyone could do to stop him. If you can get Emile back to that level he is some player, but he needs encouraging."

The weight of responsibility lies on Owen in the same way it used to on Shearer. It was easier to see the Newcastle United striker as a natural leader; his figure, his demeanour suggested it. Owen, slighter of frame, less imposing as a player, does not, although he is happy to inherit the mantle.

"If people do rely on me, then I'm pleased. If you play for Liverpool and England, you've got to do that. I wouldn't be in the squad otherwise. Alan Shearer was a legend as far as England was concerned. He scored goals in the big games. You need players who relish the big stage. Football is all about your mind. You need a body to be an athlete but 99 per cent of football is played in the mind and you have to be ready to accept that."