Owen lacks support but Eriksson is losing faith

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The Independent Football

This is now the third international tournament in succession that Michael Owen has struggled to impose himself on the formative stages but it has become the first in which Sven Goran Eriksson's patience in his leading goalscorer has run so publicly dry.

Substituted in the early moments of the second half in two consecutive group games the England striker will not, it has been made patently clear, be handed the opportunity to play his way back to the form or fitness that almost rewarded Eriksson's shows of faith at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, when he scored the opening goals in both ultimately doomed quarter-finals. No longer. Indulgences are now reserved for other precocious striking talents from the North-west.

The very public humiliation caused by his withdrawal after only 55 minutes on Saturday would have lingered with Owen until last night's kick-off, with his hurt intensified by Eriksson's decision to broadcast his discontent with the striker's performance against Paraguay on the eve of the game.

Not even before the friendly internationals that he rendered so meaningless did the England manager single out one of his star players for criticism, veiled or otherwise, and it was Owen's misfortune to fall foul of the "new", more confrontational, Eriksson at this World Cup.

It was important, he said, that Owen "plays better and better", before labelling him partly responsible for England's poor second-half performance in Frankfurt and their failure to retain possession. "It doesn't only depend on the player who has got the ball, it also depends on other players making the right moves and runs," he added. Ouch.

"Run for what exactly?" might have been Owen's justified retort after another galling episode last night. The scarcity of the England approach play - other than to aim for Peter Crouch's head at every opportunity once again - was demonstrated by the half-time statistic of 62 per cent of the play and the fact that Owen was still waiting for his first decent pass of the tournament. England were not only handicapped by their singular tactic but also the failure of the front two to combine with any devastating effect: Crouch's lay-offs rarely fell for his strike partner and Owen, on occasions, did not attack the ball with clear conviction, such as the immaculate left-wing cross that flew into the arms of the Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop from David Beckham in the 31st minute.

Owen did have a good opportunity to lift the mood of the England support in the sixth minute when Hislop spilled a Frank Lampard shot into his path 10 yards from goal but an improvised effort with his knee sailed wide. It was a chance that reignited the debate on his sharpness after five months out through injury, but in fairness he would have required superhuman reactions to ready himself adequately for that rebound.

Tightly marked by full-back Cyd Gray whenever he drifted over towards the left and watched intently by Trinidad & Tobago's central defenders for the rest of the game, Owen's finest team work came when he was forced to drop deep in an effort to instigate attacks. He did create an excellent opening for Lampard with a neat cut-back but a finish in keeping with the Chelsea midfielder's performance flew over. In the symbolic 55th minute Owen was presented with a glorious opportunity when Beckham's free-kick picked him out unmarked at the back post. He missed, and seconds later his number was literally up.

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