James Lawton: Owen's torment leaves Eriksson no defence for lack of real attack

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The Independent Football

Amid another barrage of English excuses for an unacceptable performance there is no escaping a shocking conclusion. It may be harsh but it is unavoidable. Michael Owen's torment has already become Sven Goran Eriksson's cross. It must make you wonder how quickly the crucifixion will follow.

Maybe if Wayne Rooney pulls off his hell-bent ambition to perform the medical and football equivalent of walking on water some time soon, Eriksson's worst fate may just be avoided. But now, in the aftermath of a disturbingly poor England effort against Paraguay, the coach is indeed a self-elected candidate for fresh excoriation.

His squad selection always looked a form of madness, if not worse, and as Owen trailed off the field here on Saturday after the most painfully inconsequential 55 minutes of his international career the poverty of the attacking resources Eriksson has given himself could not have been more transparent.

The coach turned out his pockets and came up with Stewart Downing, an unproven factor in the Premiership and an embarrassing irrelevance at the highest level of the game.

It was a bit like producing a plugged penny when the supper bill comes at the Savoy Grill.

Joe Cole, for all his eye-catching skill and improvement over the last season or so, was pushed forward. He caught the eye but not the moment. This is because he is not a natural-born striker.

The longer the game went on against a Paraguay who started in terror of the reputation of their opponents and finished with a thousand regrets that they could do nothing to exploit their growing command in the second half, the more apparent became Eriksson's folly.

Owen requires reincarnation on the level of Lazarus to make any impact on his third World Cup. Peter Crouch is what we have always known him to be, a brave, hard-working and potentially valuable asset alongside a genuinely international-class, and fit, predator. Rooney, however phenomenal his progress, remains a huge gamble before he accepts his first serious tackle, not to mention any cynical stamping.

So who does that leave for an Eriksson who will require infinitely more strike potential when the tournament gets more serious? Theo Walcott, an untried boy thrust "uniquely", as Pele put it so diplomatically, among hardened men.

It would be a matter of bleak humour if it wasn't the handiwork of a man paid £5m a year to exploit what has been known, quite mythically it so often seems at vital moments, as a golden generation of the nation's football talent.

Heaven alone knows the feelings of Jermain Defoe, sent back to England when the scans showed that Rooney was, at least in terms of a man walking along the street, free of injury. Defoe did not have a great season with Spurs, but he did score perhaps the most important goal of England's qualifying campaign, a strike worthy of Owen at the top of his game in the Polish stronghold of Katowice. He is a player of natural scoring instinct. But he is gone from a squad weighed down by midfielders, one of whom, Downing, has already suggested he is superfluous to the team's vital needs.

A lot else left the England campaign wanting at the first time of asking. The team were greeted here with widespread respect for the individual talent of such as Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Frank Lampard, quite apart from acknowledgement that in the wounded Rooney there still lurked a talent capable of challenging the likes of Ronaldinho and Messi.

But that respect has surely dwindled in the wake of a performance which opened with what appeared to be a drumbeat of authority and comfort and ended with something suspiciously like the bugle of retreat.

Paraguay's reputation as obdurate fighters with a mean cutting edge was just about buried in the opening exchanges, when Beckham's free-kick flashed off the head of the veteran captain Carlos Gamarra and into the goal. The 35-year-old is a legend of defiance in his country but here he seemed to be in charge of the surrender party. Soon enough, Paraguay were reflecting seriously on the reasons for their caution. This was inevitable, perhaps, as the image of England's vibrant presence among the World Cup favourites fell apart before their eyes. But what Paraguay couldn't do was persuade anyone, even the imploding England, that their victories over Brazil and Argentina in South America's marathon qualifying campaign were anything other than passing aberrations.

How bad were England, and how pathetic were their complaints about the heat of central Europe? Bad enough to recall, quite hauntingly, the words of Rio Ferdinand, and the endorsement of England's coach-elect, Steve McClaren, after a similarly ramshackle victory on the way to qualification from a group which, as Poland indicated so clearly with their collapse against Ecuador the other night, was one not of death but guaranteed survival.

Ferdinand dismissed England's critics with the claim that resurfaced so quickly in Frankfurt on Saturday. "It is the result, not the performance, that is most important," said Ferdinand.

But then how do you guarantee the best results? By a consistency of performance, by a pattern of development which now so strongly underpins the claims of favourites like Argentina and Brazil.

Results don't just happen. Sometimes, when form is elusive or injuries strike, they do indeed have to be conjured from nerve and resilience. But great, winning teams do not stumble from performances as shaky as the one against Paraguay to supreme achievement. They do not correct endemic flaws in the time between one World Cup game and another.

England's traditional flaws were exposed once again. The lack of cohesion in midfield was progressively pronounced. Gerrard was powerful in the first half, a cut above all his team- mates, but in the second he was again a talent without self-imposed reins and, thus, the degree of control required from a natural, game-shaping team leader. Beckham's decisive free-kick was of trademarked quality, as was the small orgy of personal celebration that followed, but did he perform like a captain as England repeatedly gave away the ball? Not to the degree required if he is finally to write his name indelibly across the face of a major tournament. A lack of penetration along the right flank was again the price paid for including Beckham's ball-striking potential.

Lampard was voted man of the match, an award that presumably flowed from the fact that he shot dangerously on goal twice. Otherwise he was just about invisible, which was a critically low yield from someone who is spoken of as world-class operator in midfield.

If you had to pick a man of the match for England, rather than quietly forget the obligation, it was surely Crouch; unaided by any hint of menace from Owen, he fought the good fight with unending honesty despite a critical lack of serious support.

Qualification to the second round is, no doubt, all but assured but then this was always the likelihood.

What is dismaying, all over again, is the sense that England are simply not marching with anything like the rhythm of potential champions. It's true that England's record in opening games has hardly ever generated an avalanche of optimism; indeed, even the Boys of '66 were derided for their opening excursion at Wembley. But then they were playing Uruguay, a football nation still known, as double World Cup winners, for the obduracy of their defence and the stealth of their counterattack. It was also true that England had a likely strike force still in reserve: Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters.

To what, in comparison, does Eriksson cling after a performance that became increasingly threadbare? It is the possibility that Rooney will confound all the laws of football probability and deliver the kind of impact he produced in the European Championship two years ago.

Miracles do happen, as we are reminded by the celebration of the saint's day of Anthony, the patron of desperate causes, tomorrow, but in football, as elsewhere, they are rarely the focal point of strategy.

This is unfortunately not true of the campaign of Eriksson's England. Rooney is now less a hope than a need. He is a brave and phenomenal young footballer but the demands on him here, you have to believe, are an abuse of both his talent and his heart, and this remains true however wholeheartedly he continues to respond.

One man, however fit, is said not to make a team. If this is true, the sobering message must be that England are in deep trouble.