James Lawson: Defoe's luminous debut puts Owen in the dark

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The Independent Football

Michael Owen did it on a tumultuous night in St Etienne six years ago, Jermain Defoe at the Chorzow Stadium here this week. They laid down their unalienable right to play football for England.

As Wayne Rooney did precisely the same in Coimbra and Lisbon a few months ago, it means that the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, is now under fierce pressure to break from the usual policy of industrial hiring and firing. This, and it is more than a little stunning when you consider that first impact of Owen against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, means first-in, first-out.

Rooney-Defoe is suddenly more than a compelling selection option. It is the code for a potentially thrilling future, when two young England players are given the chance to push back the boundaries that only a few days ago, were being set at the quarter-finals of major tournaments by a member of the current dressing-room élite, Steven Gerrard.

On current form, and with the likelihood of Rooney restored to full fitness, Owen, despite his fervent defence of his position on the eve of England's redeeming World Cup victory over Poland on Wednesday night, simply cannot assume that his place is safe when the qualifying action resumes against Wales and Azerbaijan next month. For him to do that, would be to join his captain David Beckham in the fantasy that he remains in the team as much for his current form as the loyalty of Eriksson.

Owen, like Beckham, faces an immense challenge at Real Madrid. Both have to prove that beyond their celebrity status, they are still capable of working veins of outstanding talent. Meanwhile, Eriksson, the man who has to decide on what is most important - lingering reputation or current contribution to the team - has to accept that if he won three vital points here, and some considerable breathing space, he also lost an argument with those who claimed his team desperately needed new blood and a fresh dynamic.

The dropping of David James, which Eriksson at first insisted would not happen, was in the end no more than a practical response to a serious, confidence-draining problem. The selection of Defoe, was something of a quite different order. It was an investment in the future which brought instant rewards, and if it revived old claims that the coach had been wrong for some time in choosing Emile Heskey and Darius Vassell before the plainly superior Tottenham man, natural justice says that Eriksson cannot be hanged twice for the same offence.

Defoe produced something more than an impressive performance here. He brought a blaze of light to some murky corners of complacency - just as Rooney did in Portugal, and before that, in the Euro 2004 qualifying match in Sunderland, when he lifted up his team with a performance so luminous that the likes of Beckham, Owen and Gerrard found themselves in the chorus line.

Defoe, 21, missed an early chance, but, as Eriksson pointed out, strikers will always do that. What was utterly remarkable was the composure and bite that was completely unaffected by the early setback. Defoe scored a beautiful goal and was always a threat to the Polish defence with his speed and razor-sharp reading of points of weakness.

Eriksson reported that when he told Defoe that he was in the team - in place of the hard-working Alan Smith - he smiled and said, "I'm happy." Given the infantile reaction of the players that in response to some of the more severe, indeed vicious personal criticism that followed the team's failure to impose themselves ultimately on a notably weak Austrian team last Sunday, they would take a blanket vow of omerta, this was about as much reaction as we would get from the dressing room. However, for once it amounted to considerably more than some biliously self-serving assault on reality. It was a simple statement of ambition - and confidence. Most impressively, it was sentiment confirmed quite spectacularly on the field.

In all of this, though, you cannot but weep at least a little for Owen. At 24, he remains in many ways a superb representative of his hugely rewarded and at times desperately self-indulgent profession.

Few contemporary players have suffered quite so much frustration - and easy criticism - without lapsing into self-pity. His first England manager, Glenn Hoddle, gave him scant encouragement before his stunning impact on that French World Cup. Kevin Keegan fashioned a nightmare for him in Euro 2000, repeatedly pulling him off the field - a ritual which was preceded by Owen's obligation to try to control a ball that was fired at his throat as though from the mouth of a cannon. In the wake of that disaster, Keegan preferred Andy Cole, in the prestige friendly against the double champions of Europe and the World at the Stade de France. Cole misfired, again, and Owen came on to score a brilliant goal.

His cool reaction was a masterpiece of understated satisfaction. If injury didn't get him at Anfield, Gérard Houllier's rotation policy did. At one point, the Frenchman declared: "Michael has to prove himself a man for England." Now the old certainty that one day Owen would pass Bobby Charlton's all-time scoring record of 49 goals for England has to be questioned seriously. He faces a perilous challenge in Madrid, and Eriksson has already intimated that he cannot ride the bench at the Bernabeu for any length of time without a threat to his England place.

Defoe's deft killer touch here in the Chorzow Stadium only underlined the extent of Owen's difficulties on all the football fronts he so recently dominated. But of course it is the way the tide of football, and all of sport, runs. Reputation, ideally, is the first victim of flawed performance. The most significant criticism of Eriksson, strictly as a coach, is that he has been slow to recognise that classic principle. Here, England's old guard took the oath of omerta. But then it didn't seem to matter so much against the eloquence of Jermain Defoe. His came on the field, a place where the truth has a tendency to yell.