Angel Michael seeks his place in the world

'What I can give to a team far outweighs what I can't give to it... What I can't give, I'm trying to improve'
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There is a certain incongruity about the words "Michael Owen" and "sin" in close proximity. Owen is surely the only person who could reply "No" to the question "Did you ever get in trouble at school?" as he does in a Q & A section in his latest book. But when asked to contemplate the prospect of England not qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, that was the word which came to mind. "It would be a sin," he insisted, "for the players that we've got in our country not to be performing on the best stage."

There is a certain incongruity about the words "Michael Owen" and "sin" in close proximity. Owen is surely the only person who could reply "No" to the question "Did you ever get in trouble at school?" as he does in a Q & A section in his latest book. But when asked to contemplate the prospect of England not qualifying for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, that was the word which came to mind. "It would be a sin," he insisted, "for the players that we've got in our country not to be performing on the best stage."

In fact, he verged on the incredulous at the suggestion. "No, I couldn't imagine England not being there," he continued. "David Beckham, players like that, are just made for the big stage, for the World Cup, it's where they prove what they're all about. It's the place to show what you're made of, isn't it?"

One might have imagined after events this year that it would ill behove anyone, even the country's most prolific international striker, to hold such an opinion about a nation who snuck into Euro 2000 so narrowly and who then produced performances ranging from the piquant to the malodorous. Too often the latter.

Some might contend that a little humility would not go amiss, but while Kevin Keegan is coach the gospel he will expect his disciples to preach is that England are a half-decent side, not one that is running on half-empty. He will require every bit of that conviction to sustain him in the coming months as England attempt to emerge from a qualifying group which contains Germany, Finland and Greece.

On Thursday, Keegan reveals his personnel to face Germany at Wembley on Saturday week and Finland away four days later. The Liverpool striker maintains that it will be an improved England to the one we witnessed in Euro 2000. "Yes, it is the same side," the Liverpool player agreed, responding to quizzical glances. "But it's a fact that we are better than we were in Euro 2000. We can only improve from those performances - 199 times out of 200 we'd play better than we did in Euro 2000. You can't assume we're going to play the same as then."

Owen, in London to launch his book, Michael Owen: In Person, added: "There are also a lot of good young players coming through from the Under-21s, so there's optimism for the future."

Whether it will be Keegan's future, Peter Taylor's maybe, or perhaps even that of A N Autre, could well depend on the next two fixtures. An indifferent start, and even the protective cloak of the FA may begin to slip from Keegan's shoulders. Germany, who vied with Keegan's England in the igno-miny stakes back in June, have undergone something of a reformation since. "We've got a German contingent - Marcus Babbel, Christian Ziege andDietmar Hamann - who areall playing pretty well," said Owen. "Which is fortunate for Liverpool and unfortunate for England."

He added: "We're probably very similar to Germany. In Euro 2000, we both got knocked out in the qualifying round, in the same group. If you look at the quality of their squad there's good performances in it. There's good performances in us, too. We've had a good result since; they've had a couple of good results since. We'll probably both go into the game with more confidence than Euro 2000."

Finland, in contrast, are "the dark horses of the group" according to Owen. While the Finns ain't what they used to be - England once defeated them 8-0 - their record was modest in Euro 2000 qualifying games, when they were eclipsed by Germany twice and Northern Ireland once. Yet Owen cautioned against complacency. "Finland are very underrated. [Jari] Litmanen's world class, and Sami Hyypia's proved his worth in the Premier League. But there's not many better than him around. There's two players right down the middle of the team for starters."

The eventual teams selected to face Germany and Finland seem certain to be adapted to suit entirely different examinations, although Keegan is unlikely to expose inexperienced players in either. Such is the early domination of Manchester United, it would be no surprise to discover Teddy Sheringham and maybe Nicky Butt named in the squad. It was a major omission to leave the former out of the European Championships, such are the options he provides as a second striker. It is to be hoped that the same mistake will not be made again. Steve Guppy's recent form on the left flank for Leicester also warrants another opportunity.

Where Owen himself is concerned, his club form alone should make him an automatic choice in Keegan's side, let alone his squad. He boasts a fine record for England and is a performer who, unlike certain others, can shoulder slights, implied and actual.

However, you could not blame him if he became increasingly frustrated by Keegan's constant references to his missing attributes. The inference was clear when he stated: "I've always believed that, at 20 years old, I've got a lot of time ahead of me to improve. But what I can give to a team far outweighs what I can't give to it. What I can't give, I'm trying every day to improve."

By any standards, eight goals already for club and country is an impressive return. Owen admitted that, last season, there were times when even his sanguine spirit was punctured by self-doubt. "That [hamstring] injury is out of my mind now," he said. "You can never rule anything out, but I sprint now without fear."

He added: "I was down when I first came back because I thought I might have lost a yard of pace. That was the lowest I've been, because that's an important part of my game. I always knew I'd get it back, but I just wanted it back quickly. I didn't feel as good during Euro 2000 as now."

It is to be hoped that Keegan capitalises on that good fortune rather than producing reasons for wasting it.

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