Hargreaves allies stamina reserves to tactical brain

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The Independent Football

Four years ago Owen Hargreaves found himself sitting with a group of young Germans as England contested a penalty shoot-out with Argentina. He was in Bayern Munich's youth hostel and, he said yesterday: "I was the only one supporting England."

Then he added, not in wide-eyed disbelief but in a matter-of-fact manner: "I never imagined I would be there myself four years later."

Nor did he, or anyone else, think he would be doing so even a month or so ago. A borderline contender for the squad he has since risen through the ranks through injuries to Steven Gerrard, Danny Murphy and Nicky Butt. Yet it is not just good fortune. Butt is now fit but during his recent absence Hargreaves has earned a place against Sweden in Saitama tomorrow by right.

Hargreaves was not just the only player to be on the pitch for the whole 180 minutes of England's Asian friendlies he was also the best player against both South Korea and Cameroon.

"I was happy to get a game," he said after training at Tsuna. "I hadn't played since 4 May and I needed to play despite still adapting to the conditions. It is humid which takes a while to get used to. I lost three kilos in the last game. There's no time to take on fluids so you just have to make it up afterwards. But we were in Dubai for a week beforehand and that was very warm. It was a great idea to go there because when we got here we thought 'where is the sun?'."

Despite the conditions Hargreaves displayed a phenomenal level of fitness during those games – he is the only player to outperform David Beckham during testing. More importantly he also displayed tactical maturity and technical excellence.

"He looked a good player when I first saw him 15 months ago but he has improved enormously," Sven Goran Eriksson said. "I would never have thought then he would be taking free-kicks and corners for Bayern Munich already. He has been very impressive here. He is keen to learn. Whenever I talk about tactics with the coaches he wants to listen."

Kieron Dyer, no stranger to running, added: "He has incredible stamina. He was the top man in both the warm-up games and did very well the way he pressed and broke up play."

Hargreaves was lost without trace on his England debut, in a ramshackle team performance against the Netherlands in August, but does not appear at all disconcerted about the prospect of making his World Cup bow.

He said: "I played for Bayern Munich a lot this year and played in a lot of big games – in the European Cup final against Real Madrid and against Manchester United in the Champions' League. The World Cup is a step up from the Champions' League but it is an honour to be involved in a tournament like this where you can prove yourself in a tournament which features all the best players."

In many ways Hargreaves is one of the most unlikely of England internationals. His family hail from Lancashire but emigrated to Canada shortly before he was born. Discovered playing in junior football by a German with links to Bayern Munich, he moved to Germany at the age of 16. He was soon involved with the Welsh junior squads but Bjorn Andersson, a Swede coaching at Bayern Munich, tipped off the Football Association about his eligibility.

Howard Wilkinson called him into the Under-21s and Eriksson, in his endless trawl for talent, was soon in the stands to see him become a central figure in Bayern's 2001 European Cup triumph.

Sweden may live to regret the perceptive eye of two of their nationals. Of Andersson, Hargreaves said: "I as lucky to have him as a coach when I came to Bayern. He taught me how to play as a central midfield player."

One link with Butt is that both, as youth team players, were regular goalscorers. Butt now rarely finds the scoresheet and Hargreaves is yet to register a senior goal.

"I know I can score goals," he said. "It doesn't bug me – I've just been saving it for the World Cup. It sounds ironic but one of my strongest capabilities is my shooting. But I don't shoot much. I play the holding role. I try and break things up and lay the ball off."

The defensive midfielder rarely finds favour with referees but Hargreaves added: "I play fair. I'm not out to hurt anybody. I've never had a red card. I've had a few bookings, but you will if you play 40 games a year."

Most World Cup matches will be shown in the early hours of the morning in Canada which means plenty of late nights for Hargreaves' family. "My Mum and Dad and brothers will try and come over for the later stages," he said. "I'm going to have to make that aim realistic."

So what happened in that first match against the Dutch? Not the easiest question to answer, but the level-headed Hargreaves does not look for excuses or attempt to share the blame.

He said: "There was a lot of expectation, a lot of hype and it didn't go well. That's life. In football you don't always play well and that day I didn't. But the last few games have gone very well and I am looking forward to the future with England."

There is every indication that it will be a bright one.