The debate of who should be the four strikers included in England’s World Cup Squad next summer is bound to wage long and hard all season. As England prepare for their friendly match with Brazil this weekend I thought I would assess the chances of the numerous hopeful candidates:
A stone-waller. Of course. The only absolute definite. Injury-permitting Rooney is all set to be the star of England’s campaign next year. Having come charging out of the shadows of the left wing berth consigned to him by Ronaldo’s tricksy presence at United in recent seasons, he is blooming into the bullish goal-scoring force everyone expected he would become. His greatest attribute though, is the perceptiveness of his footballing brain. Constantly aware of all that is going on around him, his imagination and the brutality of his defence-occupying presence should create many openings for his team-mates in the big matches.
Peter Crouch, more of an instruction for when he’s going through doorways than a name, has a big, lanky claim to make on one of those striking spots. I wasn’t convinced about Crouch on the biggest stage for some time but his goal-scoring record for England stands tall against any other. Many of his goals have come in qualifiers however, and its whether he can produce it in the really key moments, in the make or break games against top class defences, where I still have slight doubts. He would certainly provide a different option up front and surely Capello is too shrewd a tactician to fall into the ‘lump it up to Peter Crouch’ traps that previous managers have succumbed to. A good target man nonetheless. Just needs to watch he doesn’t have somebody’s eye out when he starts scissor-kicking.
Just when I think we’ve banished ‘the Hesk’ from the international set-up for good ANOTHER England manager hauls him back into duty for his country. He must be doing something right. Because it sure ain’t goalscoring. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the logic behind using his physical presence to busy defenders whilst the more astute creators work their magic around him. I just don’t think he’s even all that special at doing that. If its the 90th minute of the final and we’re drawing with Brazil we don’t want someone looking to selflessly hold the ball up on the edge of the 6 yard box. We want someone with that killer goal-scoring instinct. Heskey ain’t got that. At all. Plus, he’s losing the battle of the bulkies with John Carew at Villa, so match practice is an issue. Between the two big fellas, Crouch gets my vote every time.
I like Jermain Defoe. I think he’s awesome. He’s made quite an impression as an impact substitute for England in recent months. And it’s not surprising because he has all the attributes to change a game in the later stages and terrorise defences whose tiring minds are ripe for exploitation. He’s pacy, he possesses very clever movement in and around the box and, most crucially, he has a ruthless eye for goal. He can fashion a chance in an instant and his rapier like finishing could make the difference when it matters most. Can he play from the start? Why the hell not? If he can catch defences off guard at the end of matches he can just as easily do it to defences not 100% switched on from the first whistle. His all round play is his weakness, he can be too selfish for his own good. But this selfishness could definitely work for the good of England.
Another big guy, probably vying with Crouch and Heskey to be the hefty presence England may need in the final third of the pitch. His goalscoring form for West Ham this season and last have earned him well-deserved call-ups to the squad but I feel that he just doesn’t offer that something different to the team. He is certainly inexperienced in terms of scoring goals at this level, which isn’t always a bad thing, but whether he has the quality to push others out of the frame is doubtful. Crouch has proved he can score goals for England, Heskey is probably better at holding up the ball (boy, don’t pundits love to remind us of that), and Defoe has a keener eye for the killer goal. I like Cole but injury to others would be the only way I could see opportunity come knocking for him. Maybe not top level international class.
Bent has been in quite sensational form in the Premiership since joining Sunderland and, at this stage, is the league’s top scorer. And he’s English. So surely he’s a must for next summer, the way things are right now? Erm, well, no. I’m not at all surprised he’s scoring goals week in week out with Sunderland, after all, he did so with Charlton a few years back when he first made his name. He’s fast and can finish well on a consistent basis. The problem has been that he misses some complete howlers and shoulders the blame for key game turning points slipping away. He never really had the confidence of the managers at Tottenham. Now at Sunderland he is the main man and is relishing finally having confidence bestowed in him by his manager. At this stage I would say he is a strong candidate but I have niggling doubts whether, when the pressure is on, he can step confidently up to the plate. Could be a useful impact substitute but Defoe seems to be the more ideal man for that role.
Agbonlahor seemed to go off the boil last season after a blistering start but he’s raised his game again at the start of this season, scoring 6 already for Villa. Has the phenomenal pace to worry any defence in the world. Consistency is now the name of the game if he is to shove himself into serious contention for a World Cup place. If he continues this form all the way to next May Capello would be a boob not to take him. I would say he could even make it into the squad without being one of the four main strikers, with Walcott’s fitness becoming a vital issue. A fit Walcott may have trouble competing with Agbonlahor when both are at their best in any case. At this stage Agbonlahor has an outside shot at being one of the four central strikers, but he could well nab himself a seat on the plane at Walcott’s expense in midfield.
And the forgotten man, MICHAEL OWEN
Of course, he’s not forgotten by us or the media. The press just love the Michael Owen story; its so full of struggle and determination to realise a dream, a dream that would simultaneously prove so many doubters wrong. It’s the stuff The Sun sports writers have wet dreams over at night. Undoubtedly, it is an interesting story. At his early career best there would be no story at all. He would be playing up front for England and that would be that. But he is a changed striker now. Injuries have crippled his career to such an extent it was considered a miracle that a top Premiership team gambled on him at all this summer. But a distinct lack of first team starts have stunted his progress back to top form at United. He has scored a few goals coming off the bench but it’s going to take more than that to convince Capello. Ferguson reckons Owen will get more starts in the latter stages of the season, as United’s fixtures pile up, but it may be too late for him by then. There are too many other worthy candidates. But, if we’re talking about impact substitutes, no-one is better at sniffing out the crucial goal in the dying stages than Owen. I would like to take him because of that eye for the important goal but that would mean edging out the younger, fitter, and quicker Jermain Defoe. Owen needs starts and he needs goals fast if he is to come into contention for the World Cup. The story could end up a tragic one then, I guess. But at least he’s not playing for Liverpool…
So my 4 strikers for the England squad next summer at this early stage are:
(A little bit of everything in that four. And all are capable of getting the goals, which is ultimately what it’s all about as a striker. Bent is the big gamble of course but if his goalscoring form remains this rich all season he’s got a big shout. It all depends whether Capello gives him any chances, and how many balloons make it onto the pitch, in the mean-time.)