Cole the fall guy in Owen's return

Eriksson has protected the secrecy of his decision on whether Owen will start against Northern Ireland in tonight's World Cup qualifier longer than the new 4-5-1 formation remained under wraps last week but last night his solution leaked at last. The 4-5-1 system will be kept with Owen installed as the lone attacker while Joe Cole, the match-winner against Wales on Saturday, is replaced on the left by a relocated Wayne Rooney.

That Owen deserves to play based on a record of 32 goals in 60 starts is undeniable. Whether he deserves to play instead of Joe Cole in the context of the Chelsea man's crucial Cardiff winner is another debate. Tonight Cole will be the first England player to be dropped after scoring the winner in a competitive international since Alan Smith in 1991 - when the former Arsenal striker scored against Turkey in a Euro '92 qualifier and was left out of the side to face Poland.

The match at the Millennium Stadium was not Cole's finest 76 minutes in an England shirt but his removal from the side says much about the rising status of Shaun Wright-Phillips and that he is no longer considered by Eriksson the most dispensable of his younger players. The 4-5-1 formation will also be a stern test of Owen's strengths as a lone striker in attack, and will ask Rooney to adapt again to a new role.

Beckham himself said that he felt Rooney's best position was on the right side of a midfield of five, a role he has occupied for Manchester United this season. The 19-year-old, he said, was "unstoppable" when he was played in from that position by the lone striker. "That is what Wayne is best at," Beckham said. "That's where he causes teams most problems, he gets the ball and runs at players."

At Windsor Park tonight, the challenge of a team ranked 116th in the world behind Rwanda and Lebanon will be the most gentle introduction that Owen could have hoped for in adapting to a radically different job for his country. A role more commonly occupied by strikers such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Didier Drogba and Andrei Shevchenko, it was Owen's perceived unsuitability to the 4-5-1 formation that was understood to have restricted his options in this summer's transfer market.

But while Europe's best managers - including Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson - think otherwise about the strengths of the new Newcastle United striker, Eriksson begs to differ. With Owen on his own up front, the England coach must know that he is making another gamble, to accommodate his biggest names, which, should it go wrong, will rank with the worst blunders of his four-and-a-half-year regime.

All that Eriksson would divulge on Owen's readiness to start his season with a World Cup qualifier was the concession that the striker was "not match-fit for 90 minutes" but the England coach was militant in his refusal to reveal what part of the 90 minutes the striker would be involved in.

"His [Owen's] scoring record is incredible, especially for important games, he has always been up there," Eriksson said. "If he is fit, I think he deserves to play. Absolutely."

On Saturday, John Toshack smartly compared the problems of spreading the resources of his team to a chilly night in bed. When you pull the bedcover up to warm your head, it is your toes that suffer. Cover your feet and it's the problem in reverse. Eriksson can pick Owen and David Beckham regardless but increasingly he cannot, it seems, deploy a strategy that suits both of them. Against Northern Ireland, the 4-5-1 pattern solves the problem of the captain's deployment, but it leaves Owen in an unfamiliar role.

Beckham spoke yesterday about his indignation at the criticism he has endured from pundits like Alan Hansen and Terry Butcher, who have questioned his suitability to occupy a midfield holding role for England, and affirmed his unflagging belief in his own ability.

"Against any different player I believe I can play there," he said. "It's the ex-players who are saying it but I tend not to listen."

Eriksson, however, is certainly listening to Beckham. That chat after dinner last Tuesday has changed the role of not just the captain but Rooney and Owen too. The 4-5-1 system has stealthily become one of the England manager's biggest decisions.

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