England's hopes hit by injury to Owen

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The Independent Football

Given the weight of responsibility Michael Owen carries upon his shoulders it is hardly surprising his slender body has a habit of breaking down and, last night, the twin hopes of club and country were again imperilled by his fragility.

Owen, who had been due to fly to Amsterdam with England today, was instead sent back to Liverpool after reporting pain in his knee during training at Bisham Abbey. He joined Darren Anderton (leg) and Trevor Sinclair (virus) in pulling out of the squad which meets the Netherlands in a World Cup warm-up at the Amsterdam ArenA tomorrow. David Beckham (ankle) and Steven Gerrard (hamstring) will require fitness tests before travelling today.

Fine players all, but Owen is the concern as his problem is a potentially serious knee ligament injury. Paul Newman, the Football Association's spokes-man, said he had felt discomfort both in training and in the weekend match at Ipswich. Newman added: "Sven Goran Eriksson feels there is no point in risking Michael." Without Owen, both Darius Vassell and Michael Ricketts can expect to make international debuts though Eriksson may start with Emile Heskey and Kevin Phillips.

The other withdrawals are also a pity as both Anderton, who may regret Glenn Hoddle's recent fate-tempting claim that he had nailed the "Sicknote" tag, and Sinclair have been in excellent form. In their absence, Joe Cole, though currently playing in central midfield for West Ham, could make his first England start on the left. This may delay Wayne Bridge's international debut at left-back as Chris Powell's greater experience makes him a more likely bulwark for Cole's precocious skills.

Such caution is advisable as the way England were outclassed by the Dutch at White Hart Lane in August showed the danger of over-experimenting against them. Eriksson will thus hope Gerrard and Beckham are fit. If not, he will be reduced to four midfielders: Frank Lampard, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Cole. Hardly the ideal match for Marc Overmars, Marc van Bommel, Edgar Davids and Philip Cocu.

Beckham expects to be fit. He said: "I was kicked on the ankle inside the first 10 minutes [against Charlton on Sunday] and four or five times later on on the same spot. It would be silly to risk it in a friendly, but I don't think it will be a risk." The England captain, having tried a new international shirt on for size when he modelled England's new away kit yesterday, then warned he could yet do the same at club level.

Beckham said that Manchester United should not take his loyalty for granted despite his enduring love for the club. Contract talks between the champions and their greatest revenue-generating asset have been ongoing since the summer with Beckham's advisers recently concluding their 22nd meeting with club officials. Beckham, who has only attended once in person, said: "We are closer than six months ago but not yet close enough. Manchester United are a massive club and people think I should stay whatever, but it has got to be right on my side.

"I've always been a Man United fan and I want to stay but the club cannot play on my loyalty. Do they know that? I think so." Beckham's current contract expires in the summer of 2003, a month after his 28th birthday. Barring serious injury he should then be at the height of his powers with the England captaincy and more than 60 international caps to his name.

He added: "This is the biggest decision of my career, contract-wise. It would be nice to sort out before the World Cup. These things do prey on your mind." United, aware that Beckham can leave on a free transfer if he does not re-sign within the next 17 months, ought to be just as eager. The impasse is understood to revolve around "image rights".

Beckham said Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to stay as Manchester United manager would have a slight bearing on his decision though it did "make it easier to make a decision to stay." He added: "We were surprised but, after his speech [informing the squad]. A few of us clapped and a few of us tutted. Of course, I led the clapping.

"People have made a lot of the rifts we have had, but everyone has ups and downs. Mine just get documented more. I would like to think we have a mutual respect. I certainly respect him. When he left me out recently he told me why. You can only respect him for that."

Beckham's absence from the United side followed a dip in his club form following his epic autumn with England. "The rest has probably done me good," he admitted. "It's not nice to be left out, especially as the team was coming back into form, but the manager felt I was not fresh enough. I was always confident I would regain my form once I was back in the team, I don't think I'll need another rest now. Seven games was enough."

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