Owen leads line for new England

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The Independent Football

The Greeks are worried about Michael Owen. Nikos Dabizas, against whose Newcastle defence Owen recently scored a hat-trick, said yesterday of tonight's match with England: "We have to be very careful of his pace." Nikos Machlas, the Ajax striker, noted of the FA Cup final: "Owen got two chances. He got two goals. The cup was won."

But then, the Greeks knew about Owen's quality earlier than most. It was against them, in December 1997, that he announced his arrival on the international stage.

Owen was only three days past his 18th birthday when he was promoted to the Under-21s in an attempt to reverse a 2-0 first-leg deficit in a European Championship play-off. Owen scored once and helped Emile Heskey, who he was partnering for the first time, to two more as England won 4-2. Greece still went through on away goals but Glenn Hoddle had seen enough. Owen never played for the Under-21s again. Two months later he made his senior England debut.

Owen, still only 21, is now something of a senior pro in this youthful England squad having made more appearances than 15 of his colleagues. He thus gave a typically polished performance when speaking to the media on the eve of today's World Cup qualifier. Robbie Fowler, he said, "was a great player whose game I know well ­ but I have also played a lot with Emile Heskey". The Greeks, he added, "are very passionate and that can take you a long way". England's team spirit was good, confidence was high, the Liverpool and Manchester United players were getting on well ­ "not that there had ever been a problem".

So sophisticated is Owen at this game a gaffe would be easier to find on the hustings back home but, just occasionally, he lets a pertinent point slip out.

He was asked if there had been a turning point, personally, in his season. Having recalled how his excellent start to the campaign had been derailed by a serious injury at Derby, which he took some time to recover from, he said: "Then in the last dozen games of the season I started playing well again. That coincided with me training and playing all the time."

The italics are mine but the point is Owen's. He is a marvellous substitute. His pace unhinges defences which have already been frazzled by the twin challenge of tracking Fowler's perceptive movement and rebuffing Heskey's power. But Owen does not see cameos as his forte; in his mind's eye he is always cast as the lead. That was the problem when he partnered Alan Shearer for England. The pair should have complimented each other for their styles are not that similar. But their attitudes are. Like all goalpoachers, they are single-minded about their art. That is their strength. That is what enables them to keep operating at the sharp end of the game.

Watching others lead the line, as Owen did during the Worthington Cup final, is not on the agenda. It may make him even hungrier but, as his late goals against Arsenal on Liverpool's next trip to Cardiff proved, his appetite is scarcely dimmed by playing the whole 90.

This would appear to suggest Gérard Houllier is wrong to include Owen in his rotation policy. Yet the Frenchman could retort that Owen's strong finish to the season is due to his rotational care. It is no coincidence that Owen, having made 10 fewer appearances than Heskey, still appears fresh while his team-mate looks drained. Thus Sven Goran Eriksson, who has no need, at international level, to rotate his forwards will today give Owen his fifth start in his five matches in charge. Only Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand are similarly ever-present under the Swede. With Owen they form the core of Eriksson's new England.