World Cup call-up is no tall order for Crouch

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The Independent Football

Eriksson was travelling to Valencia and the Champions' League match between Manchester United and Villarreal but his first European scouting assignment of the new season had already yielded a result that has impressed the England manager. Peter Crouch's introduction to Champions' League football was a rare shaft of light in what has been a dismal month for the Swede: if he requires him for the match against Austria on 9 October then the 6ft 7in striker looks ready for the challenge.

Two Crouch touches during the 2-1 defeat of Real Betis were sufficient to convince that this standard of football holds little fear for Liverpool's new £7m striker. The first was a sweet angled ball inside the full-back Juan Andreu Melli that altered profoundly the flow of a Liverpool attack and gave Bolo Zenden the space to pick out Luis Garcia with a cross. The second was a supremely confident flick and turn on the halfway line that drew an ugly foul from Juanito.

There was no greater compliment to the striker, who made his debut for England in this summer's tour of America, than the removal at half-time of Juanito, who remains a first-choice centre-back for Spain's national team. There is barely the hint of any pace in Crouch's profile but he has developed a presence and a means of influencing the match that was missing from his game in previous years.

The player himself is well aware that he happens to be hitting form at precisely the time when the England manager is obliged to make some changes of note to his team before the last two World Cup qualifying matches, against Austria and Poland. Filling a "void" is how Crouch describes it but his introduction would cause the complete re-organisation of Eriksson's attacking plans.

Crouch said: "I feel a lot more confident now, going into every game. With the England thing and moving to a club like this, there are obviously a lot of top-class managers who rate me quite highly. That can only be good for me. There was a time when I never thought I'd be at a stage like this, but I've come on a lot since then.

"Of course that [the World Cup] is the main aim. I think the manager has said he wants a bigger man up front. There's a void to be filled there and I think I did reasonably well out in America. I think if you're playing well at a club like Liverpool you'll get a chance. The manager seemed to be positive about me in America, but obviously the club form is the key. I'd like to think I'd be the player that comes through over the next season. Obviously there are a lot of good strikers in the England side and I'd like to get in amongst them. But Mr Eriksson was complimentary while I was away and so, if all goes well, hopefully I'll be OK."

The Spanish press found it difficult to be complimentary towards Benitez yesterday, preferring instead to blame Betis' defeat, and the two goals they conceded in the first 14 minutes, on the Seville side's innocence of Champions' League football. There can be no doubt, however, that Benitez's decision to omit Steven Gerrard from the starting line-up threw the best-laid plans of Lorenzo Serra Ferrer.

So, too, the defiance of the goalkeeper Jose Reina, whose former club is Villarreal, and whose mind was on Liverpool's game against Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday.

Reina said: "I do know about the rivalry already, but we are at Anfield. It will be a very important game for us. I wanted to play well in a high-profile game like this, back in Spain, with everyone watching.

"As far as still having a point to prove goes, things are different now - I'm at Liverpool and very happy. But I do feel good about my game and my decision to come here. I chose to leave Spain for Anfield and I know I was right to do so. Playing United will not be easy, but they will have not had things all their own way against Villarreal, where I have lots of friends. They are my second team."

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