We have been here before, of course, with Michael Owen. Euro 2000, for one when Kevin Keegan consigned the Liverpool man to the substitutes' bench with an apparent callousness which could have damaged the self-belief of a lesser man.
Those of us who spoke to him at the time recall him casting doubts, albeit in diplomatic Owen-ite manner, of the service to him. Too many balls to chest or head, with his back to goal; not enough played on ground level, to capitalise his acceleration off the shoulder of the final defender. Here, frankly, he may privately have cause for similar complaint.
Yesterday, he lasted 72 minutes a little longer than against France before Darius Vassell assumed his striking role. With the goals and sheer impetus of his Merseyside partner, Wayne Rooney, tending to emphasise his current apparent shortcomings, these are again uncertain days in Owen's career.
The statistics reveal much about his exhibition as a striker here: one shot on target just before he was substituted in the 72nd minute. Against such an impoverished team as Switzerland, it tells us not so much about his own performance, but that of those around him.
However, what the England coach should not do is contemplate separating the Owen-Rooney pairing. Though never intuitive, it remains the best we have as a starting partnership. Darius Vassell can certainly be utilised late on against a tiring defence, but at this level, a major part of the game is played in the mind as much as with the feet, and the intimidating presence of two such players within their vision is sufficient to unnerve any rearguard.
The Liverpool man had laboured valiantly enough off the ball without reward while his Everton counterpart fetched and carried willingly from midfield. However, there were early murmurs regarding their lack of harmonisation. Almost inevitably, the lack of instant gratification, which tends to bring him too swiftly to boiling point, concluded with Rooney the recipient of a caution after following through on goalkeeper Jorg Stiel.
Then, amid a generally unconvincing first period for England, a rich move initiated by Steven Gerrard, culminated with Owen receiving the ball on the vulnerable Switzerland right. For Liverpool, Owen may have eluded the nearest defender, and shied at goal himself. Here, he weighed up the situation before finding his accomplice unmarked in the middle. Rooney could scarcely spurn the opportunity to claim his first tournament goal on his 15th appearance.
What was particular significant was the pacifying effect on Rooney of his first tournament goal. Instantaneously, it appeared to remove the malicious sting that always threatens to undermine his game. Now he concentrated on the positives.
Against France, it was inexplicable why Rooney was replaced by Emile Heskey. You don't kill the game by removing one of your best players. Owen's departure was slightly less perplexing. But not much. What the substitution of Rooney and Owen communicated to Zinedine Zidane and his countrymen was that the lion, instead of continuing with its teeth bared, had adopted a supine position.
Here, thankfully, Rooney did not depart until it was all over, and England were cruising. Seven goals in 15 appearances for the 18-year-old is a remarkable achievement. England's young record-breaker will be aiming next at Owen's record of being the youngest player to reach 50 caps for England, and in overtaking the Liverpool players' goal tally, currently at 25. On present progress, he cannot fail.
Yet, somehow you imagine that will be all the incentive Owen needs to re-confirm his position as England's number one striker. Who can doubt he will?
- More about:
- Emile Heskey
- Liverpool FC
- Manchester United
- Premier League
- Stephen Carter
- Steven Gerrard
- Wayne Rooney
- Zinedine Zidane