Eriksson shrouds his attack in secrecy

World Cup Qualifying: England coach confident Owen will not be missed against Greece but avoids naming Liverpool striker's replacement
Click to follow

The England roadshow rolled into Manchester yesterday hoping the next port of call for a competitive match will be in either Japan or South Korea.

An afternoon at The Cliff, the inner-city training ground where Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson built dynasties in red, was followed by an early evening press conference at a golfing hotel off the M60, Manchester's answer to the M25 complete with roadworks and jams.

Tirana or Liverpool, Athens or Newcastle, Munich or Manchester; it is all the same to Sven Goran Eriksson. The location may alter but the aim does not. Three points here, just as his England achieved at the other five qualifying venues they have visited since the Swede rode to their rescue, and a World Cup place will be secured.

To that end Eriksson said that Michael Owen, who lies lame with a hamstring injury at the wrong end of the M62, should not be missed against Greece at Old Trafford on Saturday.

"It is a pity to have him injured," Eriksson said, adding: "He is in great form and we don't have another Michael Owen. Will we miss him? I don't know. But if we are England we cannot go crying because we are missing one or two players."

Without Owen's 14 goals in 32 games the party's four strikers muster just 19 goals between them, more than half of them credited to the recalled Teddy Sheringham, from a total of 93 international appearances.

It is not an encouraging haul, but Eriksson insisted: "It is crazy to think we cannot win without him. We do not stand or fall by one or two players. We have to show we are a big enough football country to be able to play without Michael Owen."

Who would replace him remains a matter of debate. Eriksson is such a master of the art of saying everything and nothing that he left the press corps more confused than when he started. Clues were dropped, but many of them were contradictory. He said of Robbie Fowler, for example, that his fine performance away to Greece was "history", but added: "He is an excellent finisher. One of the top players in Europe."

"He's clearly leaning towards Robbie Fowler," said one. "It's obviously not Sheringham," said another. "Sheringham's in," came a dissenting view. "It's Cole and Heskey," said a fourth voice.

At least Eriksson knows. "I have my team," he said, "but if someone, this week at practice, changes my mind I will be happy."

His preferred XI may yet be disrupted. David Seaman, Steven Gerrard, Steve McManaman and Nicky Butt, who was only called up on Monday night, all missed training yesterday. Seaman's problem is his recurring shoulder injury, but he is expected to train by Thursday. "He does not have to learn much," Eriksson noted of the 38-year-old. If he is not training on schedule, then Ian Walker may be brought into the squad as cover.

Gerrard made one of his regular visits to a French orthopaedic specialist on Monday and, Eriksson said, "never trains the day after those appointments". Butt has bruised ribs and McManaman a hamstring strain.

Eriksson effectively confirmed that Frank Lampard had been dropped because of his membership of the infamous Heathrow Five without actually admitting it. "It was a football decision," he said before making it clear that, for him, a player's off-field behaviour was "a football matter".

"England players have to be professional the whole time," he said. "We all have a big responsibility. Millions of people are looking up at us. You have to conduct yourself well." Lampard, he added, could be recalled for the next squad if his form warranted it. The England coach added: "It is human to fail. It does not mean you are finished."

Eriksson has already warned the players that, as against Albania last month, they may have to be patient. Greece are expected to defend deep and, with Owen absent as well, Eriksson said England are likely to play fewer long balls. "It will be more difficult to get behind the defence without Owen's pace," he said. "We will have the same organisation but maybe a different strategy."

England's position ­ they need only match Germany's result against Finland on Saturday to qualify ­ is, Eriksson said, beyond his expectations when he took the job in January. "We were bottom of the group with only one point," he said. "I thought to win the group would be very difficult. I thought we could go to the World Cup through the play-offs, but not as group winners. To be number one in the group with only one game to play is very good. But think of all the results the team has got, especially the one against Germany." One more is required.