Sven on Owen: 'He hasn't scored a goal yet, but he will'

Croatia v England: No player is untouchable but Eriksson is not ready to discard his troubled yet trusted striker
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These must be strange, possibly unnerving, times for Michael Owen. Before this championship, the Liverpool man had recalled how, when Wayne Rooney had first entered the England squad, he had felt, as a senior player, compelled "to go up to him, to chat to him and make him feel welcome and comfortable". Suddenly, the new boy - if we can refer to him as that after 15 international appearances and seven goals - is usurping Owen's status to such an extent that the initial doubts expressed about Rooney's participation have been transferred to that of an England institution. One who boasts more than a half-century of caps and 25 goals.

These must be strange, possibly unnerving, times for Michael Owen. Before this championship, the Liverpool man had recalled how, when Wayne Rooney had first entered the England squad, he had felt, as a senior player, compelled "to go up to him, to chat to him and make him feel welcome and comfortable". Suddenly, the new boy - if we can refer to him as that after 15 international appearances and seven goals - is usurping Owen's status to such an extent that the initial doubts expressed about Rooney's participation have been transferred to that of an England institution. One who boasts more than a half-century of caps and 25 goals.

Observe the pair of them and it evokes characters from your early reading: the man-child Rooney, the Just William of the team who still looks as though he should arrive for games in a scruffy school uniform brandishing a peashooter. Then there's Owen, resembling Julian, the serious, well-intentioned, almost priggish leader of The Famous Five.

It's significant to note that Owen is chosen to promote a washing powder in national TV adverts, with his mum; rather than, say, becoming a poseur endorsing a sexy brand of sunglasses. For six years now, since France 98, Owen could always be relied upon to bring a refreshing whiteness to the England shirt. No stains on him, either on or off the field, as he revealed himself a prolific goalscorer, penalty-procurer (albeit dubiously on occasions), and standard-bearer for all that's best about our international game.

Now approaching his mid-twenties, the Liverpool striker has been a sober and mature individual virtually from the moment he scored that first Liverpool goal at Wimbledon back in 1997. A teenager then, but one always going on thirtysomething.

That the Merseyside duo will probably never enjoy an intuitive relationship as England strikers, any more than their fictional equivalents could be playmates, has always been evident. Now, doubts are being liberally cast onOwen's continued starting role. Just how many more endorsements does he have to receive on his England licence before a ban is enforced?

For the moment, his place appears secure. Those, like this observer, who harbour an innate belief in Owen's international prowess will be relieved to hear the following exchange between Sven Goran Eriksson and the media the day after England's somewhat mercurial performance against Switzerland:

"Would you think about dropping him [Owen]? "I never thought about it."

"And you wouldn't?" "No."

So, Michael Owen is untouchable? "No, no one is untouchable. It wouldn't be fair to say that."

"Three games now, without a goal. If that run continued, would it concern you?" "No, I don't think so. What is dangerous for a centre-forward is to think only about goals and say to himself: 'I must score'. I think he should think as all the other players: 'Give me the ball and I will play football, with passing and movement'. Because everything is about confidence, and if you don't touch the ball very much your confidence will go down."

"But there must be a point, for the benefit of the team, when that player has to be left out?" "We are not at that point today." The last was uttered with feeling.

Eriksson's faith in certain personnel - David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Owen - almost regardless of form can be seen as both an attractive feature and a weakness. None of that trio are exactly overworking the television-replay technicians. But then neither is Thierry Henry for France or Luis Figo for Portugal. Certain players, by their presence, are intimidatory forces. Their actual contribution is often of less importance than what they promise to inflict on the opposition.

Yet sometimes the hitherto unthinkable has to be contemplated. Eriksson must privately be considering what the effect of pairing Darius Vassell with Rooney would be on Croatia tomorrow night. He was reminded of that Alf Ramsey moment in 1966, when, to the chagrin of Jimmy Greaves, Geoff Hurst was summoned to partner Roger Hunt.

For Owen, both games thus far have produced the ignominy of premature substitutions. On the face of it, against both France and Switzerland, there was a dearth of stimulus in his play and a lack of product, shortcomings exacerbated by his partner, the teenage werewolf in Lisbon.

It is an unfair comparison. Rooney revels in the liberty he enjoys, scuffling and scooping the ball from the opposition from deep. Owen has been asked to adopt a rather more selfless role, being effectively asked to replicate Alan Shearer and lead the line.

The problem is, and we have visited this same debating chamber before, in Euro 2000, with England then under Kevin Keegan, that he is not unduly impressed by passes smote directly at him, particularly at chest to head height, with his back to goal.

Asked whether the service to Owen was sufficient, Eriksson declared: "Well, I think that sometimes yes, sometimes no. If we can win the ball in the midfield, the service is normally very good. If we have to win it in the back line, it's different, of course, because now and then, we have to give a long ball to Michael. Of course, that's not perfect to him."

There must also be consideration that Owen, for all his apparent ability to negotiate expertly the pitfalls of celebrity, is distracted by matters beyond Eriksson's compass. His Liverpool contract is a year from expiry, and there has been constant word that his future may lie in Spain or Italy. The new manager, Rafael Benitez, may persuade him that remaining at Anfield is the preferred option, but this is an uncertain period, following, for him, an undistinguished season for Liverpool. His domestic life has been troubled, too, with his long-time girlfriend Louise Bonsall being badly injured in a horse-riding accident, while a builder with whom he was in dispute committed suicide.

Whether Owen's problems are the consequence of poor service, have a tactical explanation, or are, pure and simply, a flaw in his own psyche, Eriksson is conscious of the fact that he does not have the benefit of a Premiership season in which the player can recover his form. This tournament season lasts six matches at best. Blink and we've got only World Cup 2006 qualification on our minds.

Eriksson has not turned psychologist yet, or turned to his own version of Eileen Drewery. "I talked to Michael before the [Switzerland] game. He's fine, I think. But I didn't ask him how he felt, to be honest." The coach added: "Now we should support him, talk to him, let him play. It will come. He has not scored a goal so far, but he will. I'm not worried about that."

As long as Owen doesn't start to dwell on that fact himself, nor should we.

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