x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The case for Owen is starting to fade

Long accused by Liverpool fans of putting country before club, Owen has no need to prioritise now. He is allowed to devote more time to Manchester United.

The common consensus is that, James Milner and Wayne Rooney apart, the only England players to enhance their reputations did so by virtue of not playing. Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Brazil may have proved a good game to miss. A second-string side showed a lack of strength in depth and too many of the stand-ins were deemed substandard. But there are worse things than being in England's reserve team. Not being in it, for instance. Just ask Michael Owen. In Doha, Darren Bent became the seventh striker capped by Fabio Capello this season. England's most prolific forward of his generation is not among them. Indeed, it is 20 months since he last took the international field. An England career that began brilliantly at 18 may have ended anti-climatically at 28.

Long accused by Liverpool fans of putting country before club, Owen has no need to prioritise now. He is allowed to devote more time to Manchester United. Since Steve Bruce was cruelly ignored by first Sir Bobby Robson and then Graham Taylor, the English contingent at Old Trafford have become accustomed to representing their country. Neither Wes Brown nor Ben Foster is a first choice for Sir Alex Ferguson, but both played the full 90 minutes for Capello.

Rewind to the summer and there was the assumption that the move to United would restore Owen to the England fold. There was also the supposition that it would mark a return to past glories. Give Owen chances, the theory went, and he will score. But the latter is not an inevitable consequence of the former. Owen's finishing has veered from the wonderful, to decide the Manchester derby, to the wasteful, against Bolton and CSKA Moscow. His strikes have been outnumbered by his misses.

His career statistics remain hugely impressive - 40 goals for England and 210 in his club career - but other numbers are less flattering. Twelve other Englishmen, including Wolves' veteran centre-back Jody Craddock, have more Premier League goals this season. Owen's regular place on the United bench is one cause but, in turn, that reflects upon his requirements. Ferguson admitted after the 3-3 draw with CSKA Moscow that he was reluctant to play Owen alone in attack and included Federico Macheda as a result. But for England, especially when Rooney retreats into midfield, a striker needs to be self-sufficient.

And the demands of the role help account for Capello's choices. Four forwards are likely to travel to the World Cup. Rooney is the automatic choice, Emile Heskey is the preferred partner (as, indeed, he was once Owen's favoured sidekick) because of his unselfishness. Carlton Cole and Peter Crouch are competing to be Heskey's deputy, Jermain Defoe and Gabriel Agbonlahor are battling to be the specialist predator on the bench. Bent could belong in either category, but is more likely to qualify for neither after his anonymous showing in Qatar (the Sunderland striker only had 11 touches; it was not entirely his fault but was sadly typical of his fortunes for England).

Owen, meanwhile, has been ignored this season, as he was last. His hunger for goals remains and his movement is still an asset. But his startling pace is consigned to the past and the question of his limitations becomes ever more pertinent. There is a hard-headed pragmatism to Capello that does not blind him to reality. The England manager seems to be seeing the Owen of today while many of his admirers remember the player of the past. At his scintillating peak, he scored against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup. But nostalgia is not on Capello's agenda, as Owen is discovering.