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Football: Problems mount for Hoddle

ENGLAND will be flying light when they take off from Luton Airport this morning after another five players were ruled out through injury yesterday.

Hoddle's original 26-man squad has now lost nine players, one short of the record 10 against Mexico last season, and there are still two training days to go before Wednesday night's friendly with Switzerland in Berne.

David Beckham and Nicky Butt both withdrew with calf injuries leaving Teddy Sheringham, who himself admits he is feeling tired, the sole survivor of seven Manchester United players selected. Also out are Graeme Le Saux (ankle), the uncapped Ray Parlour (hamstring) who will be especially upset, and Tony Adams who, in a cruel irony, "tweaked" his ankle in training at Bisham Abbey.

Hoddle will name some replacements today but they are as likely to be from the under-21 squad, which has only lost Darren Huckerby, as from outside. The under-21s had been reinforced with older players like Trevor Sinclair and Jamie Redknapp. That pair, and perhaps Frank Lampard, could step up while Stuart Pearce or Jason Wilcox may be brought in. But perhaps the most useful addition would be Eileen Drewery, Hoddle's faith healer.

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. 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. Owen's pace, and his ability to go wide, would appear to complement Shearer's strength and aerial ability well.

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. Let us hope neither pulls a muscle getting on the plane.