You could forgive Michael Owen for resisting the urge to dribble a ball over the sandy surface of Wembley's pitch on Tuesday, especially with John Terry lurking in hard hat and safety boots to christen the new stadium with his first sliding tackle. Like the racehorses he owns, Owen prefers the going a little firmer and never more than tonight when his healed metatarsal bone will be given its most serious test yet.
When you have 35 goals for England, B internationals are normally left to lesser mortals - especially as any Owen goals tonight will not count towards catching Sir Bobby Charlton's magic total of 49. But this season is different for him. Against Belarus at the Madejski stadium, the nation will hope that Theo Walcott's nerve holds if he makes a substitute's appearance, but more importantly that Owen's healed metatarsal represents no cause for concern.
This 26-year-old veteran of two World Cups has, he says, long since stopped worrying about whether he will be fit to play in Germany this summer - he knows he will be. The cold-eyed pragmatism that characterises Owen tells him he will be ready, his fitness tests say he is in better shape than ever, he has survived one bruising tackle from Terry already in training and, in the words of the penalty area assassin himself, "I still know where the goal is."
Particularly in training where Owen said that a lack of competitive football - he has played only 29 minutes for Newcastle since New Year's Day - has not stopped him from scoring. "The way we play some training sessions can be as hard as games," Owen said. "We've been recreating a lot of things over the last two months that I do in games. I've been fine for a while. I've no apprehension, I'm just looking forward to it.
"I've known all along I'll be fit. The only time I had any doubt was when the surgeon rang me up and said he thought I should have another operation. That was when I had my main doubt. Apart from that I've always known I'll be all right and the manager's known I'll be all right and I've shown in training that the effects were long gone."
Owen Hargreaves at right-back, a start for Aaron Lennon on the right wing and Stewart Downing on the left - there are a few interesting sub-plots in the starting XI to play Belarus that Sven Goran Eriksson announced yesterday, but none more important than the partnership of Peter Crouch and Owen. If the opening World Cup group match against Paraguay was tomorrow, then it would be those two, the England manager has said, who would lead the attack.
For those who might question the compatibility of Owen and Crouch, England's captain for tonight will cite the example of the Colombia friendly in New Jersey almost one year ago. Crouch made his debut, Owen scored a hat-trick and they left the field on 73 minutes to a standing ovation.
"I remember playing with him against Colombia and that went all right," Owen said, "and I got a couple [of goals] when he came on against Argentina. Hopefully, we can work well together. It's an important game for a lot of players but I don't see it as a test or a trial like a lot of people might build it up to be. We've still got plenty of time before the World Cup starts."
Eriksson's team tonight may be, in all but its two strikers and Ashley Cole, a shadow XI, but they are likely to play a very different formation in midfield to the first-choice team. With Lennon and Downing on the wings, Michael Carrick will operate as the holding player and Jermaine Jenas will be the attacking point of a midfield that seems certain to adopt the diamond shape so many believe should be imposed on the first XI.
For the eight in Eriksson's B side other than Owen, Cole and Crouch, tonight will be one of the few opportunities they have to impress Eriksson. The work of Lennon in training since the squad met on 15 May has enhanced his reputation with Eriksson's coaches and, despite the interest in Walcott, it is the Tottenham 19-year-old who has been the revelation so far.
When Lennon turned Terry inside out before scoring during training on Monday, he provoked a thin smile from the Chelsea captain and advanced his own standing considerably. While a starting role is still beyond him before 10 June he will no doubt advance higher up the hierarchy of "impact substitutes" at Eriksson's disposal with a significant input tonight.
For Crouch, the future still hangs upon the results of Wayne Rooney's scan today. "Wayne is in the squad and we are all hoping he will be fit," Crouch said. "But if he is not then, hopefully, I can stake my case with a couple of good performances."
His willing is to be admired, but a failure to spark with Owen tonight and the clamour to have Steven Gerrard pressed into a forward role may get its way come Tuesday's Hungary friendly. "Steven had a great FA Cup final but everyone's always known you can play him up front, right-back, left in midfield," Owen said, "he's got the size and speed, everything - if you want a perfect footballer it's him." As endorsements go, his point was clear.Reuse content