Sharp-shooter Owen takes aim at the Swiss

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The Independent Online

Michael Owen is not the player he was. Discuss. People have done just that for several years now, whenever the one-time Boy Wonder suffers a dip in form or a particularly lingering injury. They frequently conclude this assertion to be true.

Michael Owen is not the player he was. Discuss. People have done just that for several years now, whenever the one-time Boy Wonder suffers a dip in form or a particularly lingering injury. They frequently conclude this assertion to be true.

Owen then responds with the hard currency of his trade: goals. There have been 25 in 57 internationals to date at a ratio, when time on the pitch is taken into account, of better than one every two matches. He has scored in every previous tournament he has played in - the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and the intervening European Championship. His next goal would make him the first Englishman to score in four successive tournaments, moving clear of Geoff Hurst who scored in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups and the 1968 European Nations' Cup, this competition's precursor. It would also take him, at the still-tender age of 24, into the top 10 England goalscorers. It would take a bold man to bet against him achieving these twin feats against Switzerland in Coimbra today.

Yet there is a growing lobby to replace Owen with Darius Vassell, the Aston Villa striker, who is said to be "on fire" in training. Vassell is an impressive impact player who has not let England down but his CV is a slim volume besides Owen's.

The man who matters most, however, remains faithful. "I will not drop him," said Sven Goran Eriksson yesterday. Eriksson, who will remind Owen of his confidence in him in a private chat today, added: "I am not worried about Michael Owen. He is a great player. You can be sure he will be scoring goals for England for many years. He looks sharp and I am sure he will play even better than against France."

It is true Owen was largely anonymous against France on Sunday and his first touch has let him down of late. However, his role in the Estadio da Luz was a thankless one. He occupied the French back four, harrying them and providing space for Wayne Rooney. If he profited from the scraps of possession the midfield provided it would be a bonus.

"My role is to pull their defenders as close to goal as possible to let the likes of Wayne or Paul [Scholes] do their stuff," said Owen. "One of us was always dropping off and we were defending and counter-attacking," added Rooney yesterday. "Against Switzerland I expect we'll have more of the ball."

Owen will hope so. He had a poor season by his standards, scoring "only" 19 goals for Liverpool after suffering an injury against Arsenal in late autumn. Liverpool's poor campaign was both exacerbated by and contributed to this.

"It's a chance to prove a few things for Michael," said Jamie Carragher, his club team-mate. "His name has not been up in lights so much this season. But he's a big-game player. He always seems to do it on the big stage. He likes the pressure of playing for England and of people looking to him for goals."

This is a significant tournament for Owen. He has only a year to run on his contract and talks have stalled. Though the club at least have a manager now, Rafael Benitez confirmed yesterday as Gérard Houllier's successor, Owen will not rush into a long-term deal. ShouldSteven Gerrard be tempted by Chelsea's interest - it is understood he is - Owen will also move on.

Owen may be questioned at home but his stock remains high in Europe and a good tournament will further burnish his reputation. It is the lot of the idol to be questioned. Owen will today hope to answer.

TOP TEN ENGLAND GOALSCORERS

1 Bobby Charlton, 49

2 Gary Lineker, 48

3 Jimmy Greaves, 44

4= Tom Finney, 30

4= Nat Lofthouse, 30

4= Alan Shearer, 30

7 Vivian Woodward, 29

8 Steve Bloomer, 28

9 David Platt, 27

10 Bryan Robson, 26

Michael Owen has scored 25 goals for England so far

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