It does not take long for a joke to go out of fashion. Only last October the introduction of Peter Crouch as a substitute against Austria brought hails of derision; he will start against Paraguay on Saturday in the remarkable position of being England’s most productive forward of the modern age.
In the seven games he has played for England, they have the extraordinary record of scoring every 21 minutes, on average. “He took a lot of criticism,” his Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard said, “but he’s done a fantastic job. When you play against him in training, he’s sometimes impossible to play against. If he plays to his potential and plans well, defenders can’t cope with him. For a big man he’s good on the floor and he’s also got the massive height advantage.”
That height advantage will extend to at least six inches over both of the probable Paraguay centre-backs, the experienced Carlos Gamarra and the converted midfielder Julio César Cáceres.
Paraguay have spent most of this week practising defending against an aerial bombardment, but Gerrard – whose back injury looks to have eased sufficiently for him to start this afternoon – stressed that Crouch offers far more than aerial ability. “As a midfielder you’ve got all kinds of options playing with Crouch,” he said. “You can play it into his feet, you can play it in the air, and he’s a joy to play with. He’s got great awareness and a lot of my goals this season have come from his knock-downs.”
Michael Owen will hope to benefit from those, but there must be times when the Newcastle forward wonders whether he has returned from his six-month injury lay-off to find himself in
the land of the giants.
Jan Koller used to tower over tournaments as Gulliver towered over Lilliput, but in Germany the Czech striker is just one of a number of enormous forwards. He and Serbia and Montenegro’s Nikola Zigic stand at 6ft 8in, Crouch is only an inch shorter, and Vratislav Lokvenc of the Czech Republic, Marco Streller of Switzerland and Luca Toni of Italy are all more than 6ft 5in.
Crouch, of course, is only in the side because of Wayne Rooney’s injury, but his presence suits Eriksson’s philosophy rather better than the Manchester United forward. It would be misleading to suggest the Swede is an adherent of the long-ball game, but he was influenced by English football in the 1970s, and has spoken regularly of his belief that the ball should be transferred quickly from back to front.
Against Hungary last week, England too often went, in Eriksson’s words “too long”, but against Jamaica there were times when they seemed to touch Eriksson’s ideal.
It would not be the first time injuries have been serendipitous, but if the Crouch-Owen partnership does prove productive, it would leave Eriksson with a dilemma if and when Rooney – whom the Swede clearly regards as a once-in-a-generation genius – returns to fitness.
That decision, though, is for the future. For now, England’s focus is on Paraguay, and on winning their opening game in a major tournament for only the second time in their last 10 attempts. This World Cup has long been earmarked as the occasion when the most talented generation of English players in more than three decades would peak. Now, at last, the time has come to prove themselves.