In demand Crouch has world at his feet

 

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The Independent Football

 

Wayne Rooney was sat among the American spectators that day, as part of an Everton team that was also invited to the prestigious youth tournament involving Corinthians and Pele's old club, Santos, but even at 13 he was far too focused on the football to join in the public baiting.

Rooney will again be in the stands when Crouch makes his competitive England debut against Austria, and though national anthems will sound and 11 white shirts will stand proud once again, it is a measure of the 24-year-old's development that similarities with Dallas end there and he will line up for a crucial World Cup qualifier with the attention moving from his head to his feet instead.

Aided by the decision of the reigning European Cup- winning manager to spend £7m on his services in August, and by his own impressive form in Southampton's ill-fated fight against relegation last season, Crouch is finally receiving more appreciation for his natural ability than his physique.

A vote of confidence from Sven Goran Eriksson, even if it is one forced by a suspension to Rooney, therefore represents another major step towards recognition for the well-travelled forward.

"When I first started out, I was seen as a unique player and maybe people think they just bang the ball up to me, but people are now starting to realise that's not just what my game is about," said Crouch. "I enjoy showing what I can do and the more I play, the more people take me seriously and recognition for England and playing for a great club like Liverpool means that, hopefully, they will see I can play as well."

Crouch's self-belief strengthened when he returned to the United States for his first international cap in May, a friendly appearance against Columbia that brought a productive partnership with Michael Owen.

"I thought I did well in America and was comfortable at that level," he admitted. "I only played the one game but I've since played a couple of games in the Champions' League so I've got every confidence that I can make the grade at the highest level."

Crouch may be quietening the scepticism but the intense scrutiny that follows a player who does not conform to type remains. Now the concern surrounds his goals, or current lack of. The striker has established himself as Rafael Benitez's preferred choice for Liverpool, but without any wingers to enable him to prosper at his own game he has had to sacrifice the role he enjoyed at Southampton for an isolated lone forward's position.

It is a task this most modest of England strikers has accepted without complaint, though one that has so far yielded more substitutions than goals at Anfield. "He hasn't missed chances for Liverpool because we haven't been creating them for him," came a typically effective defence from Jamie Carragher yesterday.

"His overall play and link- up play has been outstanding and I feel a little bit sorry for him that he's had to play up front on his own at times. I think he would probably be better with somebody beside him, because he always seems to have his back to goal. It hasn't helped him in terms of getting into goalscoring positions, but there's no doubt he's a good finisher. He didn't really get into the Southampton team until Christmas and he ended up scoring 16 goals for a team that got relegated. That's an outstanding achievement."

The mitigating circumstances for his barren start at Liverpool will not apply tomorrow, not if David Beckham is restored to the right and Owen recovers as expected from a dead leg.

Crouch accepts: "It will help me playing with a partner, without a doubt. Sometimes it is difficult to get chances when you are up front on your own and playing with someone of Michael's calibre can only help my game.

"It worked well for us in the States, I was involved in his goals and hopefully it can work well again." He added: "This is a massive opportunity for me. This is a really big game for me but it's also World Cup year and if you can impress in these games then you've got a real big chance of being involved in the World Cup.

"I bring something different to the other strikers we have in the squad and I have no doubt that the goals will come. I am not worried about that and I won't let it affect me." Nothing, it would seem, ever has.

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