Football: World Cup - Owen set to step out of shadows

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AFTER 48 matches in eight largely predictable groups the real World Cup starts tomorrow. Fifteen teams, including every serious contender except Spain, have qualified for the knock-out stages. Tonight, in the Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens, England seek to take the last place.

A point against Colombia will be enough to earn England a second round tie against Argentina or Croatia in St Etienne on Tuesday. It ought to be within England's grasp but they will have to produce a better performance than has become the norm.

The signs are encouraging. Glenn Hoddle, normally a defensive coach, is understood to have decided to go on the offensive and include both Michael Owen and David Beckham. David Batty, for so long regarded, somewhat surprisingly, as a central figure, will be dropped unless Paul Ince fails his morning fitness test on his injured ankle.

While Batty has rarely given less than his best his limitations have been exposed in this highest of company. He contributes little creatively and, against the skilled technicians of Romania, he found it hard to win the ball let alone keep it. His axing is overdue, it should have happened as soon as Paul Gascoigne was dispensed with.

Michael Owen's emergence was another factor. He will give England more urgency and potency in attack but Sheringham's consequent absence changes the balance of the side and necessitates further change. If Batty and Ince both play there is a danger that the forward pair will become isolated and the rest of the team tempted into playing long balls over the top for Owen to chase. This happened when Alan Shearer and Owen started together against Switzerland in March. There is also a reduction in creativity which is not addressed unless Beckham, a more attacking and penetrative player, comes in for Batty.

Ince, meanwhile, is undergoing intensive treatment and, even if he starts, may not finish. With Gareth Southgate already ruled out, the defence will be unchanged. This is despite the carelessness of Toulouse and a groundswell of support for a reversion to the more familiar flat back four. A change in formation is unlikely because Hoddle is convinced his system is the best. A change in personnel in unlikely because the most negligent player on Monday is also the most secure - Graeme Le Saux, as the only left-footed player in the squad, is almost undroppable.

Hoddle has looked tense and tired since the defeat by Romania and his mood cannot have been helped by news that the bookies are taking bets on the identity of his replacement. John Gorman, his assistant and a close friend for more than 20 years, said Hoddle remained "calm and confident". Gorman added: "He believes we will qualify just as he did after we lost at home to Italy. He's not arrogant, he listens to other people, but he is his own man. His self-belief comes from deep within and it is growing."

Hoddle himself insisted last night that his team were ready for the challenge. "There is no fear, no fear in the camp," he said. "The spirit has been superb, and there is no fear at the moment. If we lose the game, we are packing our bags and going home, and that is the last thing on earth that we want. We have tried to keep the pressure off the players, to keep them away from that. That is our job, but it is a big game, and we know that. In the past, the bigger the game the better we have responded - in games like Poland and Rome.

"We are determined to do ourselves and our country justice and qualify. If we respond as we have done before, if we perform in the way we can, we will get the right result."

Worryingly for Hoddle, Colombia have similar strengths to Romania. They have plenty of players with World Cup experience, are technically gifted, possess an ageing but still world-class playmaker and have quick-footed forwards. The key player remains Carlos Valderrama, who has the ability to damage England in the way that Romania's Gheorghe Hagi did. England will need to get much closer to Valderrama than they did to Hagi.

Colombia operate a flat back four, which may be more susceptible to Owen than either Romania or Tunisia, who both played with a sweeper. The full- backs press forward, which could cause problems for an England side that has appeared vulnerable on the flanks. However, the first-choice left- back, Jose Santa, is suspended. They are also missing Faustino Asprilla, after he was thrown out of the squad last week.

England last played Colombia at Wembley in the build-up to Euro 96. Although the match was drawn, the hosts were occasionally embarrassed by the South Americans' ability to pass the ball around them.

England were encouraged by the number of chances Tunisia created against Colombia and would expect to do the same. With finishers of the quality of Owen and Shearer in the team, England should be capable of scoring once. And that ought to be enough to secure the point they crave.

ENGLAND (3-5-2, probable): Seaman; G Neville, Adams, Campbell; Anderton, Beckham, Scholes, Ince, Le Saux; Owen, Shearer.

GROUP G PERMUTATIONS

The group winners meet the runners-up from Group H and the second- placed team meet the Group H winners, both matches to be played on Tuesday. Qualification decided by (in order): points, goal difference, number of goals scored, outcome of encounter between the two sides, drawing of lots.

1 England beat Colombia; Romania beat Tunisia: Romania win group and England are runners-up.

2 England beat Colombia; Romania draw with Tunisia: Romania win group and England are runners-up.

3 England beat Colombia; Tunisia beat Romania: England win group and Romania are runners-up.

4 England draw with Colombia; Romania beat Tunisia: Romania win group and England are runners-up.

5 England draw with Colombia; Romania draw with Tunisia: Romania win group and England are runners-up.

6 England draw with Colombia; Tunisia beat Romania: Romania win group and England are runners-up.

7 Colombia beat England; Romania beat Tunisia: Romania win group and Colombia are runners-up.

8 Colombia beat England; Romania draw with Tunisia: Romania win group and Colombia are runners-up.

9 Colombia beat England; Tunisia beat Romania: Both Colombia and Romania finish on six points. If Romania lose by a two-goal margin Colombia will win the group; if Romania lose by a single-goal margin, a two-goal winning margin for Colombia would see them finish group winners; if the margin is one goal in each case then Colombia will need to score three more goals than Romania score tonight.

Three Lions versus South America

England's World Cup record against South American countries

1950 BRAZIL

Group phase

England 2 Mortensen, Mannion Chile 0

1954 SWITZERLAND

Quarter-finals

England 2 Lofthouse, Finney Uruguay 4 Borges, Varela, Schiaffino, Ambrois

1958 SWEDEN

Group phase

England 0 Brazil 0

1962 CHILE

Group phase

England 3 Flowers pen, Charlton, Greaves Argentina 1 Sanfilippo

England 1 Hitchens Brazil 3 Garrincha 2, Vava

1966 ENGLAND

Group phase

England 0 Uruguay 0

Quarter-finals England 1 Hurst Argentina 0

1970 MEXICO

Group phase

England 0 Brazil 1 Jairzinho

1986 MEXICO

Second round

England 3 Lineker 2, Beardsley Paraguay 0 Quarter-finals England 1 Lineker Argentina 2 Maradona 2

Total P W D L F A

10 4 2 4 13 11

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