London :Michael Owen has made his pitch for inclusion in England's World Cup squad by insisting he is just as good a player now as he was when he scored a hat-trick in a famous 5-1 win over Germany in Munich eight years ago.
The leading English striker of his generation has not played for his country since March 2008 and England's head coach, Fabio Capello, has made it clear he will have to be starting regularly for Manchester United if he is to win a recall in time for next year's finals in South Africa.
A superbly-taken stoppage time winner in United's derby win over Manchester City earlier this month reminded the world of Owen's quality as a penalty area predator, and now the 29-year-old has presented his own response to those who argue that, after several injury-blighted years, he is no longer the player he once was.
Owen accepts that the exceptional pace he used to score one of the great World Cup goals, as an 18-year-old against Argentina at France in 1998, has gone.
But he claims that did not prevent him from scoring that memorable hat-trick in Germany eight years ago and that he has been steadily honing his craft ever since.
"I am not slower now than I was seven, eight years ago -- no chance," Owen told The Times.
"With the hamstring problems early in my career, they knocked a yard off my pace straightaway, but since then I have been the same player and if anything I have improved.
"Game awareness is a good word for it. A lot of it is so instinctive it's hard to put down. It is your experience taking you into areas. You think, 'Would I have moved there as a kid, would I have anticipated that?'"
Owen believes his prominence as a teenager is now counting against him as he has been around so long, many observers assume he is nearing the end of his career.
"People think I'm past my thirties, I'm in my forties, the way they talk about me. I'm only 29. I'm not past it."
Capello is due to announce his squad for England's last two World Cup qualifiers, against the Ukraine and Belarus, on Sunday and it would be a major surprise if Owen was included.
The Italian regards the combination of Emile Heskey's physical presence and Wayne Rooney's guile as his best option in attack and has been reluctant to pair Rooney with strikers in the Owen mould, such as the on-form Jermain Defoe.
The likes of Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor are also ahead of Owen in the pecking order at the moment.
"It's not an easy squad to get into with the results the team are getting at the minute," Owen acknowledged. "But I'm as passionate as ever about extending my time with England."
For that to happen, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Newcastle man knows that he has to play far more regularly, and do enough to catch the eye of Capello, who has yet to have a conversation with Owen about his prospects of returning.
If Owen does make it to South Africa, he believes he will be part of a squad with a "cracking shot" at winning the World Cup, provided they get the required breaks..
"Football is like chess nowadays: one slip, it's stalemate and, 'right, who's the best at penalties?' You might just have to beat Spain or Brazil on penalties and you have won the World Cup."