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Aug 28, 2006

The odd man out

He is living proof that 24 into 23 won't go and, with greater frequency, that three into two is just as impossible an equation.

It appears Jermain Defoe's lot is to be the odd man out. Had Sven-Goran Eriksson been permitted an extra player in his squad for either Euro 2004 or the World Cup, it would have been the Tottenham striker.

At White Hart Lane Martin Jol, despite appreciating Defoe's qualities, is unable to accommodate him in the same attack as Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov.

First-team football, then, is precious and all the more unlikely when it comes in the colours of his country. Yet the meetings with Andorra and Macedonia could place Defoe in a select group, albeit with mixed blessings.

Such is the cosmopolitan nature of the elite Premiership clubs over the last decade that there have been players more confident of selection for England than their club. Phil Neville, in Euro 2000, and Nicky Butt, between 2002 and 2003, provide two examples. Eight goals in 12 internationals could propel Peter Crouch into their company, especially with pressure for his place at Anfield from Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy.

Defoe could be another, with a significance for Spurs: it would mark their advancement into the ranks of the over-endowed if their perennial substitute ranks among England's first 11.

Steve McClaren is an avowed admirer, selecting Defoe against Greece. Perhaps it was his anxiousness to impress, but a tendency to be found offside - and the misfortune of seeing the tap-ins drop to Crouch - denied him the opportunity to double his tally of international goals.

One in 17 games sounds a miserable return, but brief and inconclusive substitute appearances form the majority of his outings for England.

The good luck which had appeared to have deserted Defoe finally returned with the misfortune of others: Portugal were not the only beneficiaries of Wayne Rooney's red card in Gelsenkirchen while the void left by the injured Michael Owen in attack could present the chance for an extended run for someone.

But by dint of his station on the Spurs bench, Defoe is not the form option for McClaren.

Darren Bent and Andrew Johnson have scored the early-season goals to influence the England manager's choice; their rival at White Hart Lane has not.

On face value, then, their case is stronger. Yet, alone among the candidates to augment the established trio of England attackers (Crouch plus the absent Owen and Rooney), only Defoe has attracted the attention of clubs with annual obligations in the Champions League and the necessity to recruit finishers capable of deciding such fixtures.

Unlike Bent and Johnson, Defoe has figured on the radar of both Liverpool and Chelsea in the past.

It is because of a speed of foot and thought, coupled with the single-minded focus that is the preserve of goalscorers. There is a school of thought, to which this observer subscribes, that regards him as England's best natural finisher as well as a goalscorer to rank alongside any in the Premiership, Thierry Henry and Andriy Shevchenko excepted.

Why, then, is a regular place so elusive?

Jol has brought a fluency and a flexibility to Tottenham, but his concession to English football is the requirement for a target man. It made Mido an automatic choice last year and, coupled with the hefty transfer fee that was determined by his weight of goals in the Bundesliga, ensures Berbatov has the same status now.

And effectively the Dutchman's decision remains the same this season as last: Keane or Defoe.

Helping Tottenham to finish fifth, the Irishman allied magical footwork with a career-best 16 Premiership goals. He sparkled against Sheffield United last week, reasserting his place in the striking hierarchy.

And although Jol has experimented with a three-man attack, it comes to the detriment of Aaron Lennon, their sole source of width. At least European football offers Defoe the chance to profit from squad rotation: first-round exits in the domestic cups ensured Tottenham only played 40 games last season, too few to render it necessary.

While many clubs covet a position of strength with four options in attack, Tottenham are struggling to accommodate three strikers.

But while Jol has shown an admirable willingness to allow fringe players to progress elsewhere, Defoe exists in a peculiar kind of limbo. Andy Reid, like Sean Davis and Pedro Mendes before him, were considered dispensable.

Defoe, though first-team football is frustratingly out of his grasp thanks to Keane's superlative form, is not.

Despite his troubles at Tottenham - which many expected to be alleviated by a summer transfer - England provided Defoe's greatest embarrassment; the humiliation of being omitted from the World Cup to accommodate Theo Walcott.

However England could also provide a reminder of his talents; such is the limited pedigree of Andorra and Macedonia that these back-to-back games offer an ideal opportunity to cement his place with a goal.

But, if McClaren opts for the men who are in form for their club sides, the Defoe dilemma would be perpetuated.

It is part of the ever greater paradox of modern football that, the more time that is devoted to denying goals and the fewer that are scored, the importance of a genuine finisher is amplified.

And yet the chances to demonstrate his brand of instinctive, unerring shooting remain few and far between for Jermain Defoe, the odd man out.

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