Football: Beckham setback for Hoddle

DAVID BECKHAM and Graeme Le Saux became the latest withdrawals from Glenn Hoddle's hobbling England squad yesterday when the England coach admitted defeat in his attempts to get them fit.

Beckham, who has a niggling calf injury, has been sent back to Manchester to recuperate and Le Saux, who has not played for two weeks with an ankle knock, has returned to Chelsea.

England also have doubts over Nicky Butt and Teddy Sheringham, the two remaining Manchester United players from the seven first summoned, and Ray Parlour and Andy Hinchcliffe. The withdrawals reduced the squad for Wednesday's friendly in Switzerland, originally 26-strong, to 20.

The litany of injuries cast a slight shadow over Hoddle's hinted plan to pair Michael Owen and Alan Shearer together in Berne. Owen, said Hoddle, had "taken his breath away" at times this season. It was not just in his goalscoring either, Hoddle described his appreciation of play as "fantastic". Praise indeed from a coach who hands it out carefully.

However, including three England appearances at various levels, the 18- year-old has already played 41 games this season, far more than Liverpool intended, and Robbie Fowler's injury means he will continue to carry the attack for the rest of the season. Add in four of the five planned England friendlies and you are looking at a total of 53 games before a possible seven-match World Cup programme even starts.

It is a lot of matches at the sharp end of the team for someone who had only played one Premiership match before this season. Rio Ferdinand, another talented teenager but one with more experience, said he had suffered a dip in form around the New Year and Owen is sure to struggle to retain his effervescent sharpness until mid- July. As it was he was beginning to look jaded when the England call came and provided a timely injection of energy.

Hoddle is aware of the dangers but, like Roy Evans, feels he has to play Owen. "His next task is to play 40 games a season and see in how many of them he can play to a high level," the England coach said. "With his physique that might be a problem for him." Maybe the best thing that could happen to Owen is a slight strain, something that puts him out for four weeks with no after-effects.

He and Shearer still have to work on their partnership but, if Owen can stay fresh, it could prove as exciting in practice as in theory. While both are exceptional finishers neither are quite the selfish goalscorer of the Clive Allen, Gary Lineker mould. Shearer is more inclined towards that but, as he would be the senior partner that would not be a problem.

Owen's pace, and his ability to go wide, would appear to complement Shearer's strength and aerial ability well. However, playing two such out-and-out forwards does put added pressure on the midfield. With Sheringham apparently exhausted it would seem Paul Merson or Steve McManaman will be given the creative role with two grittier midfielders, such as Paul Ince and David Batty, sitting behind.

The under-21s have been more fortunate with Darren Huckerby, presumably going down in sympathy with his possible future Old Trafford team-mates, the only withdrawal from the 19-man squad for tomorrow's Under-21s-plus- oldies match in Aarau. Both England parties fly to Basle from Luton this morning, then travel by coach to Berne.