Boost for England as Owen's fitness prospects improve

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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson was last night increasingly hopeful that Michael Owen will be fit to play in Saturday's decisive European Championship qualifier against Turkey in Istanbul.

The England manager had discussions throughout the day with the Liverpool medical staff about Owen's fitness after he sustained a leg injury when falling awkwardly during Saturday's home defeat to Arsenal.

Having left Anfield on crutches, Owen underwent a scan which showed no bone was broken. A further scan yesterday revealed a split in the lining between his tibula and fibula. He was described by his club as "50-50" for Istanbul but Eriksson understands that the odds are more favourable.

Owen's importance to England needs no underlining. Of his 24 international goals, 15 have come under Eriksson. Significantly, 13 of those have been scored in competitive fixtures, including five in this qualifying campaign. Emile Heskey is the only forward other than Owen to have scored more than one competitive goal under Eriksson. He has two.

Owen's injury persuaded Eriksson to delay naming the squad until this afternoon. This delay, the Football Association said, had nothing to do with the alleged rape at the Grosvenor Hotel which, it has been claimed, involved Premiership footballers. It was, though, influenced by a bug which kept Eriksson at home over the weekend, missing the Anfield match and a planned visit to the Riverside yesterday.

This at least meant he was able to watch Darius Vassell, as near a like-for-like replacement for Owen as the English game possesses, play for Aston Villa against Bolton in the other televised Premiership match.

Vassell, making his first start since August following pelvic muscle problems, looked sharp at times, certainly more so than Alpay, Turkey's centre-half. On the last occasion Owen was absent for England, in February 2002, Vassell deputised.

To Eriksson's relief the rest of his key players came through the weekend, including Paul Scholes, who had been troubled by a hernia. The Manchester United player scored and earned a penalty in the defeat of Birmingham to prove he was fit and in form.

Scholes' goalscoring offers one alternative to Eriksson should Owen not make it. Eriksson has tended to replace Owen during matches with Vassell. As England only require a point, he could deploy Heskey as a lone striker to hold the ball up with either Scholes or Wayne Rooney behind him.

Should Scholes play there, it would enable him to stiffen the midfield, pairing Nicky Butt and Steven Gerrard in the centre with David Beckham and, probably, Frank Lampard playing in wide positions. On the debit side, Scholes has not scored for England since June 2001.

Rooney's prospects of playing were not enhanced by his incurring another booking, his fifth of the season, at White Hart Lane on Saturday.

That this booking was for dissent highlighted the concern that his temperament still lacks the maturity of his football. David Moyes, the Everton manager, would not comment on the issue and David Pleat, of Saturday's opponents Spurs, was reluctant to do so.

However, the Tottenham caretaker manager did say: "He looks unfazed. You don't worry about his age. He is a man in so many ways. He has terrific strength and ability."

But he added: "I tell my players: 'Whatever we do, make sure we finish with 11 against 11. It is criminal to have a player sent off. If you have a player sent off, you'll struggle'."

In the cauldron of the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium it is advice worth remembering. But then Rooney's expulsion is hypothetical, while Scholes and Beckham actually have been dismissed in England shirts.

Perhaps it is just as well that Kim Milton Nielsen, the Danish referee who sent Beckham off in the 1998 World Cup, will not be taking charge as planned, having pulled a muscle in a weekend Danish League game.

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