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Football: Injury puts Fowler's World Cup in doubt

GLENN HODDLE last night offered a message of hope to Robbie Fowler as the Liverpool striker prepared for surgery after suffering a severe knee injury during Monday night's Premiership match with Everton.

The England coach insisted Fowler was still in his World Cup plans, despite fears from his club that he will be out until September after tearing the medial ligaments and damaging the cartilage in his left knee.

Fowler was injured in a last-minute collision with the Everton goalkeeper, Thomas Myhre. He is currently in hospital and will be operated on once the swelling subsides.

"I knew it was serious when I saw the incident on television last night," Hoddle said. "It is sad and wretched luck for Robbie, especially as he has worked extremely hard to recover his form in recent games. He reacted absolutely as I hoped to his exclusion from the squad.

"John Gorman [Hoddle's assistant] has spoken to his father and I am looking forward to speaking to Robbie myself. We all wish him well. If the operation is as successful as we hope it will be and he recovers quickly, we believe he still might be available for the summer."

That must, however, be unlikely as Fowler may need two operations and will then need to gain both fitness and justify a place in the squad. So far, Hoddle has only picked him twice and, although he scored both times, he was left out of the squad for the recent match with Chile.

Only in November, he marked his second England start under the current coach by scoring in the 2-0 Wembley win over Cameroon, but since then he has found the net just five times in 16 games for Liverpool, failing to score a single Premiership goal in 1998.

Fowler, bitterly disappointed at being left out of the Chile squad, hoped to prove his point to Hoddle, although his lack of fortune in front of goal has continued.

Fowler was also capped five times under the previous England manager, Terry Venables, although his international career began as part of England's Under-18 European Championship-winning team in 1993, when he ended up leading scorer with five goals. He scored on his B-team debut against the Republic of Ireland in 1994. He made his full debut in March 1996, coming on for the last 14 minutes against Bulgaria.

However, Fowler's international career looked to be in jeopardy when he fell out with Hoddle last May by dropping out of the England squads to meet South Africa and Poland, and also pulled out of the side to play in France's Le Tournoi in order to undergo and operation on his adenoids.

Hoddle questioned why Fowler could not have had the operation earlier in the season while he was suspended, and said at the time: "This could cost Robbie Fowler a place in the World Cup squad."

Hoddle does have alternatives, but with Chris Sutton having ruled himself out, Les Ferdinand perpetually injured and Ian Wright also having problems with form and fitness, they are diminishing, despite the emergence of Fowler's Anfield strike partner, Michael Owen.

This may open the door for Coventry's Dion Dublin, who made his international debut against Chile, Andy Cole, currently in form for Manchester United and even Paul Merson, who has been rejuvenated since his move from Arsenal to Middlesbrough.

Liverpool's problems are more acute. The point from the draw with Everton left them in joint second place with Arsenal in the league, but with the loss of Fowler, their attacking options are limited to just Owen, who their manager, Roy Evans, was hoping to be able to rest, and Karlheinz Riedle. Evans may have to buy to maintain their challenge for both the Championship and a Champions' League place.

The possibility of returning as a third-choice striker will further depress Fowler during the long and painful rehabilitation process. He has also faced problems off the field as well, with reports - fiercely denied - that he had been the subject of blackmail attempts and other suggestions that he was demanding a huge pay increase to pounds 50,000 a week during his current negotiations for a new contract to replace the one which expires next summer.

But now any chance he had of earning a place on the flight to France seems to have disappeared with an injury which saw him pay the price for not giving up on a lost cause.