Tottenham fans travelling to the Stadium of Light on April 3 would have been hoping and praying during the long coach journey up north that they could jeer and taunt Darren Bent, much as they did after the ex-Tottenham striker missed a crucial penalty in the reverse fixture this season.
After 34 seconds, they were despairing. An hour and a half later, they were probably crying. Bent, with 20 league goals prior to the match, had grabbed a couple of more—both from set-pieces.
Their only consolation on a dire afternoon for their team was Bent's continued profligacy from the penalty spot, as he conspired to miss two spot-kicks.
Nevertheless, while Jermain Defoe was sitting on the bench feeling sorry for himself, his understudy last season had made merry to boost his chances of a late call-up to the England World Cup squad.
Bent, often accused of not doing enough for the team and missing important chances—including the header against Portsmouth last season that led Harry Redknapp to famously declare that his 'missus' Sandra would have scored—has scored 22 of his team's 42 goals.
Without these goals, an incredible 52 percent of his team's total effort, Steven Bruce might have faced the grim situation of his side swapping leagues with bitter neighbours Newcastle United. Instead, the Black Cats sit comfortably in mid-table; the comprehensive 3-1 defeat of Spurs having seemingly secured Sunderland's Premier League status for another season.
"He's been an absolute revelation for us all season," Bruce purred.
His hitman has scored four goals more than he managed at White Hart Lane, despite having played 26 fewer games. His form in front of goal has been crucial for Sunderland, and has justified the important transfer fee that Niall Quinn authorised last season.
Importantly, Bent's performances are now more consistent and mature than in past seasons.
He has scored goals against four of the top five teams this year, has played in every league game, and also provided four assists.
In contrast, Defoe has performed well only sporadically. His five-goal feat at home to Wigan Athletic was a high; his recent injury and lack of form is a low point.
Although Defoe has three hat tricks to Bent's one this season and has more international pedigree, it is undeniable that the latter is doing more to convince Capello to pick him for the World Cup this summer.
While Defoe has a better shots-on-target ratio (0.63 to 0.59), it is Bent who has a better goals-to-shots ratio (0.15 to 0.23). That means that, for approximately every four chances Bent has, he will score one goal.
It is unlikely an England striker would have more than four chances against most international teams at this year's tournament. This may be only one against the top teams.
Some would argue that neither player is the perfect partner for the indispensable Wayne Rooney. Both are too selfish, and neither has built any sort of understanding with the Manchester United striker.
While it is clear that Capello has time for Defoe, and he has thus far overlooked Bent, the Italian coach prefers to pair big with small—much like Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp has done this season.
Emile Heskey is supposedly the preferred strike partner of Rooney, although most England fans would argue that he does not even merit selection in the squad, given his poor form for Aston Villa this season and his meager goal return at international level.
If Capello sticks to his word of picking players on a meritocratic basis, Bent will start against the USA on June 12. Defoe will warm the bench, waiting for Bent, head wide of an open goal. Heskey will be downing a pint of bitter in Birmingham, contemplating international retirement.
The events of the next few weeks could be decisive. Defoe needs a renaissance, starting this week in the high-profile home games against rivals Arsenal and Chelsea. Bent will welcome Burnley with a beaming smile and a determination to run the league's worst defence ragged and pressurize Rooney for the Golden Boot award.
Capello has a big decision to make. Whom should he choose? One, both, or neither? Only time will tell.
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