As Sven Goran Eriksson picks his way through the detritus of his England possibles, severely restricted by indiscipline, litigation, injury and lack of form, the coach can be heartened that at least one player has flourished in body and soul since he last selected a squad.
Robbie Fowler has recovered much of the pace and predatory cunning around goal that distinguished him in the mid-Nineties, and the availability of the player once revered as "God" among the Anfield faithful will be regarded as heaven-sent by the England coach.
The Swede will possibly have seven players unavailable for disciplinary reasons alone (absent because they are suspended domestically, or in the case of John Terry and Jonathan Woodgate, the subject of legal processes) when he names his squad on Saturday to face Holland in a friendly four days later, a position exacerbated by several injuries and doubtful form.
Those pressing for forward places will consist of a still injury-prone Michael Owen, whose scoring prowess has declined in recent weeks; Emile Heskey, who has scored five goals all season; Andy Cole, who had been notable for his absence at Manchester United but is undergoing something of a renaissance since his move to Blackburn; Kevin Phillips, who is failing to hit the net consistently in a struggling Sunderland side; and the untried at this level but potentially England-class Michael Ricketts of Bolton and Matt Jansen of Blackburn. Leeds' Alan Smith will not be considered because he is suspended.
Under the circumstances, Fowler, who moved to Elland Road last November partly to enhance his international career, must be one of the prime contenders to face the Dutch. Today's encounter against his former team will provide the Toxteth-raised striker a ready-made context in which to confirm the well-being suggested by seven goals in 10 games for Leeds.
His forward partner Mark Viduka regards him as "probably the best striker I've played with", and certainly the pair appear to have established an affinity swiftly. The former Celtic man adds: "At finishing he's certainly the best. He's got great awareness on the ball and off it and he makes great runs. I've played with some good strikers and I have to say that Henrik Larsson is also a good finisher, but I don't think he is as good as Robbie. Henrik makes up for it with the amount of work he does but Robbie Fowler has got a God-given talent at finishing."
Viduka maintains that his fellow forward can make a significant contribution to England's World Cup challenge: "If I was Sven I'd take him. He can make a scoring chance out of nothing, and he's shown that with England against Albania [with his goal in the 2-0 victory at St James' Park in September]. Even if he's not in Sven's first-choice XI he's got to go."
Despite Liverpool's paucity of goals – just five in the last six Premiership games – the Anfield management have never veered from their conviction that the sale of Fowler, at £11 million for a player approaching 27 years of age, made sound financial sense. There is also a belief that, following a knee-ligament injury which caused the player to miss France '98, he has never fully recaptured his early splendour around goal. In contrast, David O'Leary maintains – well he would, wouldn't he? – that he thought the deal was so good it must have a catch to it.
From an objective perspective, the Irishman appears to have won that particular argument, if we can discount Wednesday's defeat at Stamford Bridge, when Leeds as a whole appeared torpid and their forwards in particular rarely threatened Chelsea's rearguard until Harry Kewell made a belated appearance following a period of injury.
Nevertheless, Fowler is unlikely to receive anything less than a reception befitting a man who scored 171 goals in 330 games from the travelling Liverpool supporters today. The striker himself has largely, and perhaps understandably, maintained his own counsel on the fixture, which will yield stirring memories of over a half a lifetime spent at Anfield.
But Viduka says: "I would think he's looking forward to it. It's a big game for him and I hope he proves everybody [at Liverpool] wrong, although he doesn't have to prove anything to anybody. I am sure the Liverpool fans still respect him. In fact, I think he'll be playing with the away fans cheering him as well."
The Australian international adds: "Robbie's a quality player, who I like playing alongside. I think Liverpool will be sorry they let him go because ever since he's been here he's been on fire."
Liverpool's acting manager, Phil Thompson, whose contretemps with Fowler early in the season may have contributed to the striker's eventual departure, refused to get drawn into that debate. "He has done very well at Leeds, and everyone will be looking to rekindle their acquaintance with him. But this is not just about Robbie Fowler or any one player. Robbie was a big favourite with our fans and still is, but this game is more than being about one person. It's about two teams looking for honours and determined to get into the Champions' League."
Viduka himself is one of four Premiership players who face an FA misconduct charge following apparent elbowing of opponents, unseen by the match referee. The striker is accused of catching Martin Keown in the 1-1 draw against Arsenal three weeks ago. His only reaction was: "All I'm going to say is that if I meant to elbow him he would have ended up in the back of the stand." Another of the quartet is Smith, who is already serving a suspension, while Lee Bowyer and Danny Mills both face an FA disciplinary panel on Tuesday, regarding incidents in Leeds' game at Highbury at the start of the season.
The Elland Road four are among the club's most talented personnel, and O'Leary and his chairman. Peter Ridsdale, must be privately furious that such indiscretions could diminish Leeds' chances of the championship, and possibly even jeopardise their challenge for a Champions' League place. Today's meeting with Liverpool is crucial to those aspirations, and much will be expected of Fowler against his old team-mates.
Something tells you that the Toxteth Terror could well punish Liverpool in the most trenchant manner known to a striker.Reuse content