The England striker situation has been one of the hottest topics of debate as the weeks tick down towards Fabio Capello’s announcement of the 23 players who will board the plane to South Africa.
Will he take four strikers or five? Can Rooney and Defoe play together? For some strange reason, however, few seem to be talking about Darren Bent’s World Cup chances. Bent’s midweek hat-trick in Sunderland’s 4-0 win against Bolton took his Premier League tally to 18 for the season. That puts him third in the scoring charts, just three goals behind Didier Drogba, seven behind Wayne Rooney, but, importantly, one ahead of Jermain Defoe, a player who seems all but guaranteed a spot in Capello’s final squad.
It is approaching four years since Bent made his England debut in a 2-1 win over Uruguay, and the fact that he has amassed only four further caps in the years since is something of a mystery. Bent has scored goals wherever he has played. Twice, at unfashionable Charlton, he managed to finish the season as the Premier League’s top-scoring Englishman, hitting an impressive 31 goals in 68 games in his two seasons at The Valley. Bent’s subsequent spell at Tottenham is almost universally referred to as ‘troubled’, yet in spite of the £16.5m price-tag acting as an albatross around his neck, and in spite of his unhelpful manager likening his finishing to that of his wife, he nevertheless finished his final season there as the club’s top scorer. As a Sunderland player, the 26-year-old is finally enjoying his football again. The Black Cats have struggled but Bent has flourished, scoring half of their goals to date this season. It is safe to say that without him, Bruce’s men would be firmly rooted in the relegation zone.
Although not the tallest, at 5’11” Bent is still taller, stronger and better in the air than Defoe, whilst being quicker, more mobile, and more prolific than either Crouch or Heskey. At Sunderland, his partnership with Kenwyne Jones has borne plenty of fruit, but throughout his career he has arguably seemed most comfortable as a lone front man. His electric pace means that he is most effective when playing off the shoulder of the last defender. He’s no flat-track bully either, having scored against every member of the ‘Big Four’ this season, even if one of those goals did have a little help from a certain beach ball.
Why then, given these attributes, does he appear to be so far down the striking pecking order? The major problem Bent faces is Capello’s self-confessed preference for a big man/little man partnership in attack. Unfortunately for him, Bent isn’t really either. With Rooney certain to be the little man in this equation, the Sunderland man is not the obvious candidate for the role of target man. By his own admission, he is most comfortable operating as an out and out striker, and as Gabriel Agbonlahor, Michael Owen and even Defoe himself have discovered, Capello has little room for the classic off-the-shoulder hit-man. The Italian demands more than goals alone from his forwards, and a questionable work ethic was one of the main accusations levelled at him by his detractors amongst the White Hart Lane faithful – and one which has even raised its head a few times at Sunderland.
Another mark against Bent’s name is his failure to impress in his limited international auditions so far. Capello paired him with Rooney in last November’s friendly defeat to Brazil in Qatar, but hauled the Sunderland player off after 54 minutes following an anonymous display. Bent’s rivals such as Crouch and Defoe have more proven international pedigree, but who knows how Bent would have fared had he been given an opportunity to bed into international football against more modest opposition, as the Tottenham duo were?
Capello’s decision to partner Rooney and Defoe for the recent friendly against Egypt, and Crouch’s two-goal salvo in the second half of that game, suggest that the England Coach is by no means convinced that Emile Heskey is the man to play alongside the talismanic Rooney. Bent was desperately unlucky not to go to the last World Cup in Germany after a fine season with Charlton, when Sven Goran-Eriksson made that bizarre and fateful decision to take an unproven Theo Walcott instead. Four years later, he once again appears way down the queue as the tournament looms ever larger. All he can do is keep scoring. Another 20 goal-plus season will surely force people to pay attention. Bent now has around 12 weeks to make it impossible for Fabio Capello to ignore him.