Football: Euro 2000 Play-Offs: Owen the ace in Keegan's full England pack

Liverpool striker insists he is `sharp' after recovering from injury and ready to return to international duty at Hampden
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The Independent Online
NAPOLEON'S requirement of his generals, that they be "lucky", applies just as much in late 20th century football as it did in early 19th-century warfare. Yesterday the suspicion that Kevin Keegan is thus blessed began to harden.

Having been given a second chance at qualifying for Euro 2000 by the Swedes last month, he has become the first national leader to have all of his chosen men available for duty since Sir Lancelot's sudden departure left an empty seat at King Arthur's round table.

Given the history of withdrawals suffered by his predecessors, from Sir Walter Winterbottom to Glenn Hoddle, and by Keegan himself, such a scenario must have seemed as likely when he named his squad as a squadron of low flying pigs interrupting training.

However, despite a full weekend programme, including a bruising north London derby, he yesterday welcomed all 23 selected players to Burnham Beeches. The only major injury was the media room photocopier.

Not everyone actually trained yesterday morning, that was too much to ask, but everyone was expected to be fit for Saturday's play-off first leg with Scotland at Hampden Park. "There are a few with niggles," Keegan conceded, "but it is the first time everyone has reported and all have a chance of playing."

Of the five players who missed or cut short yesterday's training, Alan Shearer, Martin Keown, Jamie Redknapp and Tony Adams should all do a full session today while Andy Cole, who has a bruised calf, is expected to be involved by Thursday. Three others, Ray Parlour, Steve McManaman and Michael Owen, are short of match practice but that was known when Keegan named his squad. Of this trio, Owen is the only player likely to feature in Glasgow and he, said Keegan, is "fit", but maybe not "match-fit".

The player himself had no such doubts. "I've trained for the last week at Liverpool and played a game on Saturday so there is certainly nothing in my mind that I've got any problems. I came through the game with no stiffness or anything, it was fine. So, I'm looking forward to Scotland."

While Keegan may not have any injury worries, he will not, this time, be naming his team before Saturday,despite a crafty attempt by a Scottish reporter to commit him to doing so. This, Keegan explained was an exceptional occasion.

Not that there will be too many surprises. The bulk of the team will be well-known to Keegan's Scotland counterpart, Craig Brown: Keown, Adams and Sol Campbell at the back; David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Paul Ince, Redknapp and Phil Neville in midfield, Shearer and Owen or Cole in attack.

In goal? Good question, one which Keegan himself said he did not know the answer to yet.

"There's no doubt about it, they are very close and I'm very fortunate to have the problem [of deciding between] two goalkeepers of that quality," he said. "There is the experience of David Seaman, then there is the fact that Nigel Martyn is probably playing as well as he has ever done."

Seaman has been criticised since he returned from injury but Keegan said: "I will pick the goalkeeper I think is right for the game bearing in mind the way he's playing at club level, the way he's training with me, and the performances he has given me."

As for Shearer's partner, it would appear to be Owen if he can convince Keegan he is match sharp. "It's really a case of if he's fit there has to be a place in the side for him," admitted Keegan, adding: "He looks pretty fit to me, he has certainly trained fantastic this morning."

Having suffered a hamstring injury late last season, Owen did not start this season in Liverpool's team then broke down with a different hamstring injury after coming on against Southampton. He has thus only played three full matches this season but looked sharp when he appeared as a substitute for England against Belgium last month.

"That helped my confidence," he admitted yesterday. "Being away for four months, people say you've lost your sharpness and sometimes you begin to believe it. It was great to know that I was back and sharp again.

"I think when you're young, and you haven't had an injury, you think to yourself: `What's all this about needing time after an injury?' You don't understand it. You think: `You've played in the Premiership for two years, you've seen a lot that can be thrown at you.' But when you have a long-term injury, you understand. You think: `Why isn't this happening? Why isn't that happening?' But I've only missed five days of training in the last few months and against Belgium, and since then in training, I've felt much sharper."

Owen, whose hamstring problems are related to a muscle weakness around his pelvis, now stretches for half an hour before and after playing and training. A tiresome practice but one, he hopes, which will enable him to stretch the Scots on Saturday and ensure that they snap rather than his hamstrings.

Froggatt's fortune, page 28