Is Owen yardstick about to be eclipsed by Rooney milestone?

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The Independent Online

No doubt it is the weight of history - and his own relentless urge to score goals - that has made Michael Owen so inevitably the marquee name tonight.

No doubt it is the weight of history - and his own relentless urge to score goals - that has made Michael Owen so inevitably the marquee name tonight.

But then however much you respect the meaning of Owen's career there has to be a suspicion that the focus will shift soon enough from his pursuit of local hero Alan Shearer's 30-goal mark. It is provoked by the touching of another English international football milestone.

It is one that goes beyond statistics, however impressive. It is two years of Wayne Rooney in an England shirt. Two years of astonishing promise - and growing certainty about the nature and the degree of his talent.

If the boy is often a worry, if sometimes he and his much-publicised fiancée display a lack of wisdom consistent with what might be expected from working class teenagers suddenly bombarded by the riches of the world, the concern can have nothing to do with his game.

Two years ago, down the road from tonight's St James' Park battleground, at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, we were given the promise in the 2-0 win over Turkey and last weekend, after Rooney so brilliantly infused his ability into the 4-0 victory over Northern Ireland, his Manchester United team-mate Gary Neville talked of the blessing to England football that the 19-year-old represents. Neville did not go out on the wild side, he burrowed into a consensus formed by some of the hardest judges of the game.

Rooney is so much stronger now than when he took over the Stadium of Light. If his liking for nightclubs, and the provocative, loutish attention they can bring, is a concern, it is, for the moment at least, one that inevitably dissolves when he goes out on to the field.

There will no doubt continue to be much discussion about the Rooney-Owen partnership. It is far from a union of neatly balanced contribution; it will never have the implicit dovetailing of such notable predecessors as Hurst and Hunt, Lineker and Beardsley, Sheringham and Shearer, but Owen will always score goals, and at the most important times, and Rooney? Rooney can do anything.

He can score any goal you like. He can display the nerve to take an extra touch and leave a goalkeeper grovelling on the floor (sadists should watch for this if the Azerbaijan defence is as compromised as it was when conceding eight goals to Poland at the weekend); he can do it with power or touch, he can chip and volley from the manual of football dreams.

Above all else that he possesses - and it is what takes us back so surely along the chains of memory to that night in Sunderland two years ago - is the capacity to change a game, a mood, in no longer time than he takes to display a talent that has the potential to match any we have ever seen in football.

Some have jeered at this projection while dwelling on a nature that is capable of much raucous indiscipline. One or two were even inclined to draw a veil over his future after he lost his head in Madrid a few months ago. They have said he is a mere gifted possibility, but if it is true that he has to go the long course, master his environment as well as his technique - the obligation and test of all great players - the evidence of a unique force is already before us.

Whatever happens in Newcastle tonight has to be set against the weakness of the opposition, as did the remarkable twisting burst which produced England's third goal last Saturday. But when that allowance is made, the possibility of a display exceptional in any circumstances is easy to contemplate.

That was the promissory note Rooney wrote in the Stadium of Light and already it has been made good so many times.

Remember that European Championships qualifier in the Stadium of Light against Turkey, the team who had fought their way to the semi-finals of the World Cup? Remember the captain David Beckham running into a suspension as though he had just been scalded? Remember the tortuous workings of a midfield comprising Beckham, Butt, Gerrard and Scholes? The Turks were growing before your eyes. Right up the point Wayne Rooney, aged 17, laid his influence on the game.

He didn't score. He didn't have to. What he did was change the course of the game utterly with a few moments of stunning confidence. He played the ball up in the air, effortlessly controlling it on its return, and in one urgent move wrong-footed half of the Turkish defence. For a little while the crowd was stunned. Then, on delayed reaction, they roared.

They roared at something that was utterly exceptional. Some said the ultra-cautious Sven Goran Eriksson was rash to play Rooney that night, but whatever else is said about England's head coach no one will be able to draw more satisfaction from any spectacular performance by his striking pair tonight.

The first thing he said to Owen was that he was an automatic selection for England, thus ending more than a year of frustration and bizarre rejection. Owen was a Liverpool substitute at the League Cup final when they met. When Eriksson first saw Rooney he simply held up his hands to the heavens. It was a proper gesture and the chances are he will make a similar one tonight.

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