James Lawton: Striker whose edge has grown dull in idleness

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It was supposed to be a milestone but what Michael Owen, aged 25, most truly reached at St James' Park this week was a crossroads.

It was supposed to be a milestone but what Michael Owen, aged 25, most truly reached at St James' Park this week was a crossroads.

More than at any time in his impressively waged battle to lay down his professional values amid the galactico glitter, Owen was clearly a man in need of a new direction - and a new football home.

This was painfully evident on a night when a fractionally sharper edge would have left him awash in bold headlines rather than cruel dismissal as a "midget" by the usually amiable Azerbaijan coach and Brazilian immortal Carlos Alberto.

Owen never projected himself - as Alberto falsely alleged - as a five-goal beneficiary of a defence ransacked by Poland but in his body language alone, both in Wednesday's game and against Northern Ireland last weekend, he spoke candidly enough of his ambition. It was first to draw level with Alan Shearer at the 30-goal mark for England and then push on towards the pinnacle of Sir Bobby Charlton's 49.

Half a dozen times he seemed on the point of moving along that road, but on each occasion he was a touch or half a stride off the mark.

The explanation was one of the most basic truths of football. Not even a striker of Owen's natural instinct can stay sharp on the bench; he cannot do it waiting for a chance and then snatching at something you are supposed to do in a finely honed groove. It is the recurring nightmare of Owen's career of extraordinary commitment and consistency, and one which was previously most intense when he was forced to share playing time with Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey in Gérard Houllier's rotation system at Liverpool. There have been times recently when that old desperation has reappeared.

Against Northern Ireland he was not-so-gently mocked by the TV analysts - who this week so rapturously saluted David Beckham's improved form against the abject Azeris - for his celebration of a goal that went in off a defender. On Wednesday night he was cautioned - and suspended from the next qualifier against Wales - for handling a cross. These were echoes of the time he attempted to claim a goal when a shot from Frank Lampard flew off the back of his heel.

Owen is plainly in need of increased professional certainties. He is no Beckham; he cannot glide through the worst of times with an untouchable self-belief and a publicity machine which would be the envy of the Hollywood hills. He needs the reinforcement, the oxygen, of that which has always been his supreme justification: the regular opportunity to display his knack of finding the net.

He is not likely to get that in Madrid as long as Real's president, Florentino Perez, clings to the galactico myth, and though this has long been the concern of the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, there were pressing reasons to believe on Wednesday night that the worry might just have deepened.

One problem is that Wayne Rooney, again luminous at vital moments, does not form a natural partnership with Owen, a point made by Jack Charlton before the Manchester United player broke open the Azerbaijan defence early in the second half. But if Owen does not instinctively relate to the range and the power of Rooney's game, who goes in? Jermain Defoe? We have seen the Tottenham player's cutting edge, but does his body of work begin to match that of the man he would replace? Given Eriksson's conservatism, nor can there be any easy chance to see if Andy Johnson could be anything more than a Premiership sharpshooter, another Vassell or Phillips or Beattie. Owen, when you look at his record, and his age, has to be the prime investment, at the very least until next year's World Cup finals.

Alberto's disparaging rage, his miscalculation of character and achievement, was bemusing in a great player who rubbed shoulders with such as Pele and Tostao and Gerson. He said that Owen should wash his mouth and clean Beckham's boots. This was a parody of reality, surely, when your mind runs back through the peaks of Owen's contribution to England: the potentially vital but squandered goals in World Cup and European Championship quarter-finals, the unforgettable World Cup strike against Argentina when he was just 18 years old, and, poignantly when you thought about it on Wednesday, when he was so anxious to score, his fine goal against Azerbaijan in a gale in Baku last year. That brought three points which could never have been in serious doubt on Wednesday - and came, Alberto might have forgotten, when Beckham was under suspension for deliberately pursuing a yellow card.

Now Beckham, on the back of a sharply improved contribution, albeit against one of world football's weakest nations, rides serenely again, and with strong evidence that he and his publicists are engineering a return to English football. However, it is Owen, without the professional insurance of being able to sell millions of shirts in the Far East, who has the most pressing need to leave behind the dust of Castille.

They make fine steel there, but do nothing for the sharpness of an English swordsman too often obliged to miss the action.

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