England stars' tiring schedule will hurt World Cup hopes, says Owen

Michael Owen believes England will go into the 2006 World Cup finals at a big disadvantage if the national side's players have had to play more than 50 games in their domestic season.

Owen had a stop-start season with Real Madrid although he did end the 2004-2005 campaign in the starting line-up after his move from Liverpool. Although he is keen to play more regularly for the Spanish club, he feels that a repeat programme next season would leave him feeling fresh when Sven Goran Eriksson's team bid for glory in Germany - assuming they qualify.

"The England manager has been campaigning for a winter break each season, for less games and for more rest time before going into World Cups because of the schedule of some of his players," Owen said.

"If you play 50-60 games in a season, then it's understandable that you can be tired and then perhaps not produce your best in a World Cup or European Championships. On the other hand, if you only play nine to 10 games then you might not have that edge to your game which makes the difference."

Owen continued: "But then you get someone like me who has started around 30 games in this last season and come on as a substitute in about 20 others for club and country. I would have thought if that happened to me next year, with the World Cup in the summer, then I don't think you will hear Mr Eriksson complaining.

"Of course, you always want to be greedy and play as much as you can but if I have exactly the same sort of schedule next season, then I'm sure I'll go into the World Cup in good condition. I felt fine at the end of this season."

The Manchester United midfielder Quinton Fortune and the Charlton Athletic striker Shaun Bartlett return from injury for South Africa's World Cup African zone Group Two match against Ghana on 18 June.

The pair missed last weekend's 2-1 win over the Cape Verde Islands with ankle problems but were included yesterday by the coach Stuart Baxter in his 20-man squad for the game.

Bartlett's return will offset the absence of the Porto striker Benni McCarthy, who is suspended for the qualifier in Johannesburg after picking up his second caution of the campaign against the Cape Verdians.

Japan beat North Korea 2-0 behind closed doors in Thailand yesterday to become the first team to qualify for the 2006 World Cup alongside the hosts Germany. Fifa moved the politically sensitive match to Bangkok as a punishment for the crowd violence that followed North Korea's 2-0 defeat by Iran in Pyongyang in March.

l Jose Mourinho is to be honoured with Portugal's highest order, a presidential spokesman said yesterday. The Chelsea coach will be declared a high officer of the Order of Infante Dom Henrique in a Portugal Day ceremony tomorrow in Guimaraes. Mourinho, a native of Setubal, Portugal, will be among 60 people to be honoured by the country's president, Jorge Sampaio. Before taking over at Chelsea, Mourinho led Porto to the Champions' League, the Uefa Cup and two Portuguese league titles. The Order is named after the 15th century prince who launched Portugal on its world-wide voyages of discovery.

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