Peter Crouch: The big question

Steve Tongue canvasses opinion about the beanpole striker who gave Liverpool a nightmare before making a dream move

Mourinho was the more successful in persuading his new charges to adapt, which is one reason he has returned to the same haunts 12 months on as manager of the Premiership champions. His Iberian rival, equally appalled by the slap-dash manner in which English teams tend to treat the ball, presided over a season in which Liverpool somehow finished as European champions after trailing in 37 points behind Chelsea, their dreadful away record as much of a handicap as any other deficiency. So it was significant that before and after spending £7 million on the gangling Southampton striker Peter Crouch last week, Benitez regularly emphasised the importance of having a forward who could hold the ball up, especially away from home.

The implied criticism of players like Milan Baros and Djibril Cissé was a huge compliment to Crouch, forced to defend himself throughout his career against the jibe that he is merely a head on a stick. "A basketball player" was Arsène Wenger's label after Arsenal dropped two points in a volatile game at Southampton in February. A tennis player, as it happens, in his earliest sporting days; although not measuring up to the 6ft 10in Croatian Ivo Karlovic, his serve must have been formidable.

Football slowly took over and earned the Macclesfield lad an apprenticeship at Tottenham, where his first appearances in the Rothmans Football Yearbook bizarrely credit him with nothing more than a puny 6ft 2in. Perhaps the man with the tape measure said "Crouch" and, ignoring the capital letter, he bent down. While more recent editions have updated that understatement by four or five inches, his weight, at 11st 12lb, has remained constant, despite attempts by everyone from his mother to trained dieticians to put some meat on what Aston Villa's manager, David O'Leary, called "a lovely big bag of bones".

"I do a lot of weights and my mum feeds me up," he told the Independent four years ago, while just beginning to make a name for himself as a 19-year-old at Queen's Park Rangers. To no avail, it would appear, which should present an interesting challenge to Liverpool's nutritionists. Even in those days - earning a £1.5m move to Portsmouth after only one season in west London - Crouch was conscious of the temptation for team-mates simply to hoof the ball up to him, and his manager at the time, Gerry Francis, was emphasising that "he's got great skill for a big lad". Successive managers like Harry Redknapp (Portsmouth and Southampton), Graham Taylor and O'Leary (both Villa) concurred. Indeed, if there is a legitimate criticism it is of his heading, which would be devastating if powered by a more dynamic leap.

Still, Benitez was sufficiently impressed by the way he terrorised the Liverpool defence at St Mary's last season to have the club's scouts keep a closer eye on him than the defence managed during one of the side's worst performances of the campaign, Jamie Carragher admitting: "I found him a nightmare. He played incredibly well in that game and scored at the back post, getting in behind me." It was the sort of Liverpool performance, and defeat, that the mild-mannered Benitez found difficult to tolerate, one of 11 Premiership away defeats in which they mustered only two goals.

The manager has earmarked Crouch's ability to keep hold of the ball as part of his strategy, which could be implemented in Tuesday's Champions' League second qualifying round against Kaunas of Lithuania. That will only work if he is given sensible passes at controllable height, mixed in with occasional longer balls towards his head that can be flicked on for - whom? Cissé, with his pace, would be favourite, unless Benitez fails to sign a right-sided player like Luis Figo and uses the Frenchman out wide, with Fernando Morientes down the middle.

Morientes has not yet won over the Anfield crowd, some of whom are wondering whether, at 29, his best days are a good way behind him. He may well start the Premiership season alongside Cissé, however, as Crouch is suspended for the first two games following a sending-off in Southampton's critical relegation game at Crystal Palace, where he registered his 13th goal in 19 games.

That inspired run failed to save the Saints, because of the team's defensive inadequacies, but it caught the eye of Sven Goran Eriksson. An international debut followed, against Colombia in New Jersey, Crouch setting up one of Michael Owen's three goals and prompting England's head coach to speculate: "When you go into a big tournament, you should have one big striker. If you put the ball up there, he will win it. His touch is not bad at all and if you are trying everything in the last 15 minutes as you can't break them, maybe you put on Crouch."

Liverpool will want much more than that. But it is a warm thought to keep a young player going through the winter of a World Cup season.

Peter Crouch

Full Name: Peter James Crouch

Born: 30 January 1981 in Macclesfield

Height: 6ft 7in

Club: Began as a trainee at Tottenham in 1998. Unable to gain a regular place he was sold to QPR in 2000 for £60,000. Excelling, his aerial threat and delicate touch persuaded Portsmouth to spend £1.5m in 2001. After only 37 games and 18 goals, Aston Villa made a £5m bid. With things going badly at Villa though he was sold to Southampton. It wasn't until Harry Redknapp took over that Crouch's career took off.

International Highlights: First and only cap against Columbia in May 2005.

They say: "He's had to live with jibes about his height and I'm so pleased for him because this boy can play." Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor.

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