Owen's certainty backed up by squad strength

It took scarcely a second for the most prolific current English international goalscorer to rank his current team-mates above those he left behind in Spain - an argument based primarily on the depth of the talent at Sven Goran Eriksson's disposal. Owen's explanation was simply that "the big galactico thing" may have given his former club "five or six world-beaters" but that the strength in reserve, the quality that runs through Real Madrid, was "not a patch" on that possessed by England.

It was, if nothing else, a blunt reminder of the belief that this England squad has in one another despite the wavering optimism of those around them as they approach their great reckoning in Germany. That belief appears unwavering in Owen, a different, more worldly striker with a year at the Bernabeu behind him, the shock of his unlikely union with Newcastle United retreating and his third World Cup finals - he will be only 26 in December - approaching.

Ahead of tomorrow's friendly against Argentina the temptation is strong to linger upon Owen's virtuoso goal in the defeat to that familiar enemy in St Etienne in the 1998 World Cup, but what is most striking about him is how he has changed. The steely confidence that was evident on the pitch even when he was 17 is more obvious in the pronouncements he makes about opposition teams and his own certainty about his place among the best footballers in the world.

When it was put to him this week that there is an English fear of South American teams he asked incredulously who feared them. He pointed out all the other promising international sides who have failed in recent tournaments. But most of all he had no hesitation in placing this group of England players above those with whom he embarked on two previous World Cup campaigns.

"I don't see them [South American sides] as unbeatable, certainly not. I've played Brazil a couple of times, drew at Wembley [May 2000] and lost in Japan [2002] when things could've been a lot different," he said. "I've no fear about playing any of the top teams. Yes, Brazil have some cracking players and if you asked the entire world who is going to win it, they'd probably come out on top for popularity. But we've played against them and didn't fear them at all.

"We respect them. They've got some of the best attacking players in the world, but we've got some of the best centre-halves. If we can nullify their attacking players I'd always fancy us scoring a goal against them. If everyone plays to their maximum, then I think this team [is better than the last two World Cup squads]. It's just that we've got such good players. The standard in training is unbelievable. If everyone is on song in any particular match I wouldn't be fearful of anyone."

With four goals in six games for Newcastle, Owen bristles at any suggestion that coming home to a league that he describes as the one in which he "loves playing" had any fear for him. The Argentine centre-back Roberto Ayala, who had such limited success marking Owen seven years ago, will recognise a very different player from the one he encountered back in France. A striker who is more likely to defer to Wayne Rooney for the spectacular, but is as well-schooled as any on the challenges of world football. "I don't fear Argentina," he said. "I don't fear anybody."

The Argentina team England face tomorrow will know Owen, but they might be a little less certain about the strengths of Peter Crouch - of whom Owen launched a resolute defence.

In his conversations with Jamie Carragher and other old friends at Liverpool, Owen said that there was unanimous praise for the striker. "Getting booed for England is not going to help Peter," he said. "A lot of people will be surprised when he finds the net and starts playing well. But there will be as many people, me included, who won't be surprised in the slightest."

Owen even went as far as to say that Eriksson had discussed with him the reasons for bringing Crouch into the squad for the summer tour of America. As one of his understudies, Crouch is evidently one of those to whom Owen refers when he talks about the strength in depth possessed by England - a strength that may out-rank Real Madrid's but which will have an exacting demand placed upon it next summer.

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