For Peter Crouch, England's encounter with Croatia tomorrow offers up what he calls a "defining match"; a contest that will form part of a sporting legacy; maybe even his legacy. "I haven't had the chance to play in one of those, one that gets us to a World Cup finals or European Championship but this is my chance," he said yesterday. "Any player who is picked on Wednesday can be a hero and put England through."
Crouch has spent much of his career defying definitions – and assumptions – and is fiercely proud of what he has achieved, so far, for his country. "I've always believed in my ability and, that given the chance, I will score goals," he said. "Maybe at times I've felt that I deserved more chances but when they have come I've been mentally strong. I was fortunate enough to get a goal in my first big tournament, the World Cup, and it would have been nice to have gone further then. I would like to score the goals that Michael Owen has scored, to be remembered like that, scoring in massive games in the World Cup – or David Beckham against Greece. There have not been many opportunities to do that in the matches that I've played. But Wednesday night is one."
As England's only fit – and proven – striker Crouch is certain to start the final Group E qualifier at Wembley. "There is a lot of responsibility on my shoulders," the 26-year-old, who will win his 24th cap, acknowledged. "But I feel I've played enough games to accept that responsibility." Crouch also knows that the responsibility may stretch to being a lone striker, supported by players breaking from midfield.
"I've done it before in big games for Liverpool and England," Crouch explained. "And I've always managed to cope with it although playing up there is harder on your own. With a partner you can share the workload. It's better for me personally when you play with two. But if someone like Stevie G [Steven Gerrard] is bombing on, it's certainly going to help."
If that sounds like an indication of how Steve McClaren is going to deploy his resources – with a five-man midfield – then Crouch is keen to add that nothing is, as yet, set. "We have not worked on formations and shape yet," he said. "But I'm sure that come the game we will be organised and ready and we can learn from being beaten by Croatia and it will be a different game at home, in front of our fans."
It could have been a different game had Israel not beaten Russia on Saturday to give England the opportunity to redeem themselves and qualify. Crouch admitted that on the plane back from England's friendly with Austria last Friday – when he scored the winning goal – "opinion was split" among the players as to whether Israel would achieve a positive result.
Crouch watched at home. "It was extremely difficult but there was no way I wasn't going to watch it," he said. "When the shot [from Russia] hit the post I was just waiting for it to go in. That would have been extremely hard to take. Thankfully it did not and then Israel did us a massive favour. Everyone was buzzing. My dad was first on the phone. We all realise what a big chance this is. I remember thinking 'it's up to us now' and I'm excited by that prospect. I think we've been a bit wounded by some of the results because we all realise we are capable of a lot more. When we qualify, as I believe we will, I am sure we will come good."
If qualification is achieved, Crouch is adamant that England have to do better than their usual quarter-final placing. "We all believe we have the ability to go on and win it. That has to be the target," he said.
Talking of which, the "target" man seems to be back in vogue in football with the dominance of players such as Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and Crouch himself. "There was a time when a target man was almost abolished and there were not many of us around," Crouch said. "Certainly it seems to have made a comeback but if you are good enough it doesn't matter the way you play."
Crouch has been a target of another kind himself in the past and was even booed by England supporters when he came on as a substitute against Poland in 2005. But goals settle arguments and his record for club and country is impressive. His header in Vienna was the 13th time he has found the net for England in just 23 games – of which only 13 were starts – and although the theory goes that most have come against weaker opponents, Crouch has a ready response. "You can't pick and choose who you play against," he said. "When I've played I've always felt I've done well and scored goals."
Croatia's 40-a-day man helped set England striker on fire
Peter Crouch will lead England's attack tomorrow and in the Croatia dugout will be a former European Cup-winner who knows the Liverpool striker well. Now Slaven Bilic's assistant, Robert Prosinecki once played for Real Madrid and Barcelona but, at the end of his career, a spell with Portsmouth, then owned by his friend Milan Mandaric, coincided with the rise of the young Crouch – just 20 years old at the time.
For the brief time that Crouch and Prosinecki were at Pompey they were one of the deadliest – and most unusual – partnerships the Championship had seen. Despite a love of cigarettes and questionable fitness, Prosinecki – the only man to score for two separate teams at two World Cup finals (Yugoslavia and Croatia) – had an unerring habit of picking out Crouch with crosses.
Crouch scored 19 goals in eight months at Fratton Park, most of them from the crosses of Prosinecki.
Yesterday Crouch described Prosinecki as "like David Beckham with the quality of his delivery".
Crouch, who left Portsmouth in a £5m move to Aston Villa in February 2002, recalled in his autobiography Walking Tall that Prosinecki was an "amazing player" especially for someone who "smoked about 40 cigarettes a day. He caned them," Crouch wrote. "They were Marlboro Reds, too, not for the faint-hearted. He was a top, top player but very different from what we were used to. We were English lads playing for Portsmouth and suddenly we had this massively famous player among us. He didn't do much running – he couldn't run really – but he was a fantastic player."
Crouching Tiger: Peter's Lucky 13
England have won every game in which Crouch has found the net.
* Debut v COLOMBIA (*) May 2005
Friendly, Won 3-2
* 1 v URUGUAY (h) March 2006
Friendly, Won 2-1. Scores his first England goal on his fifth appearance, heading in equaliser from Joe Cole's cross.
* 1 v HUNGARY (h) May 2006
Friendly, Won 3-1. A precise finish from 18 yards resulted in the invention of his celebrated robot dance.
* 3 v JAMAICA (h) June 2006
Friendly, Won 6-0. A header, a tap-in and a measured finish completed a hat-trick, after an earlier missed penalty had threatened to spoil the World Cup leaving party.
* 1 v TRINIDAD & TOBAGO (*) June 2006
W Cup, Won 2-0Towering header from a David Beckham cross broke deadlock.
* 2 v GREECE (h) Aug 2006
Friendly, Won 4-0. A rebound and a header helped Steve McClaren start his managerial reign with a victory.
* 2 v ANDORRA (h) Sep 2006
Euro 2008 Qualifier, Won 5-0. Sweeps home after pass from Ashley Cole before heading home fine Aaron Lennon cross.
* 1 v MACEDONIA (a) Sep 2006
Euro 2008 Qualifier, Won 1-0Acrobatic finish gave a struggling England the points.
* 1 v ESTONIA (a) June 2007
Euro 2008 Qualifier, Won 3-0. Another impressive header from a looping Beckham cross.
* 1 v AUSTRIA (a) Nov 2007
Friendly, Won 1-0. Downward header just before the break from Beckham corner.
TOTAL: 23 caps, 13 goals.