Football: Owen's class takes the breath away

Ian Ridley says Shearer and Owen may link up for England in Switzerland this week; `Michael has a fantastic appreciation of the game. To create and score, he might be a player we have not seen before in that position'
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THE shot was already on its way into the net but Michael Owen was going to touch it home anyway. It was his instinct. Then he turned, an 18-year-old arm raised in triumph, and shouted with delight. And this was just a kickabout match to end England's training session at Bisham Abbey on Friday.

As well as a charming, youthful enthusiasm, the cameo showed how comfortable the youngest squad member already feels in the England camp. Any international player will tell you that initially the temptation is to shrink and stay silent amid such illustrious company before feeling able to be one's natural self. Encouragingly, with the World Cup finals just three months away, Owen seems advanced in everything he does.

It is another reason, after Owen's exceptionally promising debut against Chile last month, why the England coach Glenn Hoddle seems likely to retain him for Wednesday's match against Switzerland in Berne, probably as a partner, in a potentially exciting front pairing, for the returning captain Alan Shearer. Hoddle himself lists all the other reasons.

"I have seen Michael play a lot this year and he has taken my breath away at times," he says. "He's often been behind everything where Liverpool have looked dangerous. If you were the opposing coach, you would be on the edge of your seat. He knows how to run and when to run off the ball." Even when he has not played particularly well, Hoddle adds, there has always been the expectation that he might do something outstanding when he is on the ball.

"He looks really exceptional with his pace against a flat back four. It was made for him, like for Ian Rush and Gary Lineker. At international level, though, the lad's got to realise that you won't see a flat four as much. But I think he's got enough in his repertoire to adjust his game."

Indeed, Hoddle believes that Owen may prove to be an unusual, even unique, asset to England; potentially a Peter Beardsley who scores more goals, or a Roger Hunt with more pace. "He has a fantastic appreciation of the game. To create and score goals, he might be a player that we have not seen before in that position. He has got the two strengths."

A born goalscorer? "He probably creates a little bit too much to be a born goalscorer. Shearer is a born goalscorer and has the same aura that Lineker had. When Alan is playing well, he is liable to score goals. When he is not in good form, he still scores goals. If you give him good quality, he certainly will. It's too early to say with Michael. The jury is still out and you would probably have said the same about Shearer at that age and Rush as well." Hoddle has kept a close eye on Owen since the Chile game. "My main concern was his next performance. He had had a lot of praise after a good debut in what was a poor team performance and you think, `Well, will it go to his head?' But no, he's got on with his business for Liverpool and scored a hat-trick against Sheffield Wednesday. It says a lot about the young man and the head on his shoulders."

Hoddle has almost been looking for reasons why Owen should not go to France, it seems. "I have to make sure he is ready. I am looking at whether he has got the temperament, where is the chink in the armour. At the moment, there isn't a chink. His next task will be to play 40 games a season and see in how many of them he can play to a high level. With his physique, that might be a problem for him."

The partnership with Shearer will need a little work if the two are to complement each other, Hoddle adds. "But it's not bad. There's a couple of things we need to work on but I think the blend wouldn't be bad, would it?"

Indeed not, but Hoddle quickly adds that we should not forget the SAS - Shearer and Teddy Sheringham, he points out with a smile when someone wonders whether he meant Chris Sutton and Shearer. But as he himself says, it is a proven pairing, and Sheringham looks in need of a rest rather than a restatement of his case.

It might just be that David Beckham is also rested in deference to Manchester United's demanding and deflating recent period, so that he, like Sheringham, can return refreshed in April against Portugal. With Paul Gascoigne out injured this week, it could all combine to see Steve McManaman played just behind Owen and Shearer in a potentially exciting triumvirate that would give England another option for France.

That would be a silver lining for Hoddle to brighten the present cloudy injury picture. The 26-strong squad was shorn of four Manchester United players on Friday in Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Andy Cole and the fitness of six other players - Beckham, Sheringham, Nicky Butt, Graeme Le Saux, Andy Hinchcliffe and Ray Parlour - will be considered today before Hoddle decides on replacements or alternative strategies in advance of tomorrow's journey to Berne.

One possibility is to call up players from the Under-21 B team playing on Tuesday night. Jamie Redknapp, Hoddle confirmed, will play as sweeper but could also be on the bench for the full team.

This injury-ravaged rite of Spring is becoming a problem of the English game more than any other it seems, with other countries scheduled to play this week at something closer to full strength.

"It's a lot to do with the way we play and the quickness of the next game coming round," says Hoddle. "We play more Saturday-Wednesday games than any other country in the world. Spain and Italy play similar amounts of games but their seasons start and finish a lot later, when there is not a World Cup.

"Our game is changing all the time. I don't think it is as hurry- scurry, not as rigid 4-4-2 with everyone playing the same way. It is evolving and becoming more skilful, with more foreigners coming and the good English players we have got. But it's possibly the most difficult league in the world for staying injury-free because of the tempo of the game. You certainly need more energy levels than abroad, where there is a slower build-up and a sudden change of pace.

Injuries come with fatigue, and more serious injuries these days, he says. "The old saying used to be `Let the game settle down for 20 minutes'. Now it settles after 10 minutes of the second half, and it might stretch and open up then." He does not believe that Manchester United's European exit will deflate the national mood; injuries, not lack of quality, was the problem, he says. "We shouldn't go, `It's the same old story again'."

In the meantime, whichever limping XI Hoddle fields will carry much interest, on the one-door-closes-and-another-one-opens principle. He also needs to know, should injuries continue for June, whether the potential replacements of this week are up to the challenge.

They should at least compete competently with the Swiss, who have been a fading force since peaking under Roy Hodgson's coaching just before Euro 96 but who now have the disciplinarian Gilbert Gress in charge. He has been described as a cross between Albert Einstein, for his erudition on the training ground, and Donald Duck, for his emotion on the touchline.

If all that Hoddle believes of Owen is true, and he does indeed pair him with Shearer, then Herr Gress could make for some waddling watching on Wednesday.