Hargreaves looks forward to a timely reminder

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The Independent Football

In the foyer at St James' Park, down the stairs from the trophy cabinet that time forgot, there was no sign of England's midget gem late on Wednesday night. Michael Owen, it seemed, had been advised to take a circuitous route to the team bus outside, thereby achieving a convenient bypass of the lurking media pack.

Carlos Alberto did skulk through, although he was a little short when approached. "I said everything I wanted to in the interview room," the Brazilian World Cup winner turned Azerbaijan coach said, referring to his bemusing post-match savaging of England's No 10.

John Terry also made a brief appearance, with a black plastic bin liner slung over the shoulder of his designer jacket. Before he could strike up a chorus of "My old man's a dustman," he was gone. "I'm sorry, I can't talk about it," he said, not with regard to his earthy accessorising but to Chelsea's Champions' League quarter-final.

Owen Hargreaves, by contrast, was happy to stop and talk. It was hardly surprising. At least it saved his evening on Tyneside from being one of absolute unemployment.

Three years ago, at the 2002 World Cup, the native Canadian looked set to become part of the fixtures and fittings of England's midfield. Now he appears to be in danger of being left on the shelf for next year's World Cup finals in his adopted homeland of Germany.

Hargreaves enjoyed a starting berth in England's opening two group games in Japan and South Korea, until injury against Argentina brought a painfully abrupt conclusion to his tournament. Since then, he has made the starting line-up just twice in 33 matches: in Macedonia in June 2003 and in Sweden in March 2004.

From being in the midfield hub, the Bayern Munich man has been pushed to the per-ipheral vision of Sven Goran Eriksson's team plans. Last Wednesday night's World Cup qualifier was his 15th successive match outside the starting XI. Worse still, he was outside the bench too. Despite a bright and breezy 20-minute cameo as a replacement for Steven Gerrard against Northern Ireland at Old Trafford, Hargreaves lost his place among the England substitutes to the Newcastle home boy, Jermaine Jenas.

"It was nice to get 20 minutes against Northern Ireland, especially in my position, in the midfield holding role," he said. "It would have been good to have been on the bench tonight, but the gaffer picks the team. He makes the decisions."

He does indeed. And, with Gerrard and Frank Lampard providing thoroughbred presences in central midfield, and a fitter Nicky Butt somewhere on the horizon, Hargreaves is facing a difficult task simply to keep himself in Eriksson's selection thoughts - and to keep alive his dream of starring in a World Cup staged in the land that has been home to him since he joined Bayern as a 16-year-old, fresh from Lord Beaverbrook High School, Calgary.

Now 24, Hargreaves has an immediate opportunity to remind England's head coach of his talents, with Bayern's visit to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night for the first leg of their Champions' League quarter-final against Terry, Lampard and the rest of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.

If he is to kick-start his international career, and add to his collection of 26 caps (all but seven as a substitute), he will need to show all of the proficient midfield industry that forced him into the England senior picture in the first place, as a rookie in the Bayern side who beat Real Madrid and Valencia on the way to to the European Cup in 2001.

The Bavarians have waned as a Continental force in the past four years, but reached the last eight of the present Champions' League campaign, under the direction of Felix Magath, with an impressive dismissal of Arsenal. "We haven't come this far just to play for fun," Hargreaves said. "We fancy ourselves. We can definitely beat Chelsea. We've always fared well against English teams, whether it be Manchester United or Arsenal. We've had great results against teams like that and we're very confident."

For Hargreaves, the two legs will be a chance to impress more than one coach in England. His contract ends next year, and a summer move to the land of his Lancastrian father would appear to be in the best interests of both himself and Bayern. Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson have made enquiries, and a move to Anfield was mooted last summer.

"To play in the English Premier League is obviously a dream that one day I hope to realise," Hargreaves said. "But I'm at a great club and I'm very happy there. I'm very grateful for the development I've had at Bayern. I'm contracted for another year and a half. What happens this summer or next summer, I don't know."

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