Fabio Capello will not be revising his World Cup plans quite yet as a result of Michael Owen's unexpected transfer from Newcastle to Manchester United on Friday. The England manager picked 43 players at some stage last season but Owen was not among them, and his one appearance under the new regime was an ineffective 45 minutes in defeat by France 16 months ago.
It is difficult to pinpoint a period in the recent past when 29-year-old Owen was a force at international level. There have been occasional accomplished performances, but the most recent, when scoring twice to win a European Championship qualifying game at home to Russia, was back in September 2007. It could not obliterate the memory of a dreadful 2006 World Cup, in which Owen played poorly and then, when united with Wayne Rooney for the first time, lasted one minute against Sweden before twisting his knee.
Being reunited with Rooney at club level may appear to offer benefits for England, but that has never been a particularly successful partnership either, each of them faring better with some aerial or physical power alongside Peter Crouch or Emile Heskey.
Meanwhile, football has moved on, England and most leading clubs, including United, tend to opt for a 4-2-3-1 formation or a close variation thereof. That is bad news too for Owen, who has not proved that he can operate effectively as a lone striker. Nor has Rooney, whose frustration tends to get the better of him when left on his own, but he fits neatly with Steven Gerrard as a pair just behind the front man. For Capello, that leading man is currently Heskey or Crouch, while Jermain Defoe and Carlton Cole come off the substitutes' bench.
What of United? With Carlos Tevez following Cristiano Ronaldo out of the door, it is by no means certain that Sir Alex Ferguson will lose all interest in signing another striker this summer. Even if he sticks with what he has, however, Owen's most likely role is that of impact substitute. The manager believes that Dimitar Berbatov has more to offer than was regularly evident last season and that he will flourish in the new campaign. He needs opportunities to prove it, ideally with Rooney pushed up alongside him rather than hugging the touchline.
"I want to play in the position where I think I'm best," Rooney said last week. "A lot of people think I'm best as a centre-forward." The clear implication is that he is among them. The point, as it relates to Owen, however, is that there are likely to be fewer vacancies than he might hope in the matches that really matter.
Others are already making extravagant claims on his behalf, like another former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, who dismissed his successor's continuing injuries with the suggestion that "he always comes back stronger and better". The evidence that Owen must now dispel on a huge stage is that, on the contrary and not surprisingly, he comes back weaker and worse.Reuse content