From hero to Villan, but Darren Bent shows he's no longer England's nearly man

Okay, so Darren Bent is a badge-kisser and a money-grabber who betrayed the Sunderland fans who idolised him.

Okay, so he swapped a club chasing a place in Europe for an Aston Villa side flirting with relegation and, intentionally or not, belittled his former teammates in the process.

But nobody's perfect, and memories in football are joyously short. So last night Bent wore his disloyalty easily and England were grateful for him.

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The new England number 9 has not been cowed by the reaction to his move to Villa. He appears to have fed off it.

And whatever we may think about his principles, in the Parken Stadium he played like a man who deserves his place in Fabio Capello's starting XI.

Bent has been England's nearly man for five years now, desperately unlucky to miss out on selection for the last two World Cups.

In the prime of Bent's career, he has had to learn to live with being behind Michael Owen, Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and even Andy Carroll in the battle to be Wayne Rooney's strike partner.

He has continued to be a prolific goal-getter wherever he has gone (except Spurs), only to have to swallow hard while non-scoring centre-forward Heskey has been preferred to him.

But England's failure in South Africa seems to have persuaded Capello finally to reassess the potential of Villa supporters' new favourite son.

And Bent has seized his opportunity.

He scored when he was brought off the bench in the crucial away qualifier against Switzerland last September.

And he scored again here, anticipating a clever cross from Theo Walcott beautifully to tap in an England equaliser in the 10th minute.

Sure, he could hardly miss but that is not the point.

The point of Bent is that he has an instinct for goals. He has that priceless knack of being in the right place at the right time that comes from being able to read the game.

He was there to prod the ball in here just like he was there to slide home the goal that beat Manchester City on his Villa debut a few weeks ago.

"For a striker, that is a really important quality," Capello said after the match. He was full of praise for his new centre-forward.

Bent's critics say that he does not contribute enough to the game apart from his goals. It was the same criticism that Capello always made of Owen.

But England's struggles at the World Cup appear to have convinced Capello that a natural goal-scorer is not a luxury in his side, but a necessity.

Bent did not just score last night anyway. He linked well with Rooney, won flicks to set the Manchester United forward free, ran the channels relentlessly and posed a regular threat on goal.

He might have scored, in fact, in the fourth minute when he pounced on a slack back-pass and tried to take the ball around Thomas Sorensen, only for the keeper to race clear to thwart him.

He came close again midway through the first half when he lunged at a superb cross from James Milner but could not quite make contact.

And he almost forced the ball over the line five minutes after the interval when he leapt with Sorensen to try to convert a cross from substitute Ashley Young.

After so long being either overlooked or discarded - he has won only eight caps in the last five years - Bent is suddenly the man in possession of the coveted number 9 shirt.

Heskey has retired from international football, Owen has slipped out of contention, Defoe has struggled with injury and Crouch has never really convinced Capello that he is the man to lead the line.

That leaves Carroll, Liverpool's new £35million man, a fellow defector from the north-east, who escaped the criticism Bent got for leaving because of the perception, at least, that he was sold against his will.

Carroll may grow into England's centre-forward in the long-term, but he is unlikely to be fully fit for the crucial Euro 2012 qualifier against Wales in Cardiff at the end of next month.

After the way he played here and the goals he has been scoring for new club and country, Bent deserves to keep his place for that game in the Millennium Stadium.

His arrival has helped Villa edge away from the danger zone and it will not have gone unnoticed by the team's fans that England ended the game last night with three of their players - Bent, Young and Downing - on the pitch.

Bent played his part to the full last night. Others came and went, but he remained for the entire 90 minutes.

He played well. He played honestly. He worked hard for his team.

People think differently of him now.

Sunderland fans and many neutrals feel betrayed by him. Capello is learning to love him.

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williamhill.com

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