Fowler fits the bill as Owen's replacement

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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson didn't quite explain why Frank Lampard is out and Robbie Fowler is almost certainly in, but when he was through, when he had outlined his hopes for and his thinking about Saturday's final qualifier against Greece at Old Trafford, there was really little reason for doubt on either question.

It is Eriksson's style to punch hard while wearing silk gloves.

Certainly there was no question that he would deliver a lecture on the rights and wrongs of young Lampard's reported behaviour in a Heathrow hotel on the day when American travellers were shocked by the terrorist outrages in New York and Washington.

He was not in any finger-pointing mood, but the question came in hard enough and it wanted to know if that indeed was the reason why Lampard had been excluded from the current squad.

Eriksson said that it was a smaller squad than the one picked for the games with Germany and Albania and somebody had to be left out. But when a player was dropped it didn't mean that the door was slammed in his face. Young players make mistakes that are not beyond redemption.

But then there was also a subtext, and it was a rather powerful one.

"Whatever decisions I make are to do with football, whether it is on or off the field it is to do only with football. If a player is not playing well, if there are problems I consider the reasons for this. I can say that when you are playing for England it is reasonable to expect 200 per cent professionalism.

"We are England, we are not a small country and we have to behave well and play well if we are going to win the World Cup. There is a big responsibility on anyone who plays for England and anyone who is part of the team. People are looking up to us because we are England. Millions of people do that."

For Eriksson the loss of Michael Owen, he stressed, was a problem, a disappointment but far from a crisis.

He said: "Of course we can win without Owen. We have good players, we may have to play a little differently but yes we can win."

It leaves him with one overwhelmingly vital decision, however. Who plays in place of the young striking demigod?

The hint is strongly that Fowler is the man. "He looked a lot fitter in training today and we know what a great goal scorer he is. I am not saying what the team is, we have more work to do this week but I have an idea."

The implication was strong that Fowler, so troubled at Liverpool this season, may well have passed one of the most crucial fitness tests of his life. Though Eriksson was quick to say that the Liverpool man's excellent performance in Athens was no longer relevant – "that was a long time ago'' – there was also his beautifully crafted goal at Newcastle which carried England beyond their doubts against Albania and to the brink of automatic qualification to next summer's World Cup finals.

Eriksson was at pains to stress the merits of the other candidates to partner Emile Heskey at Old Trafford, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham. Eriksson said he watched Sheringham, "a clever player", at White Hart Lane last Saturday and was impressed, at least in the first-half, and he was also taken with the aggression of Cole in his reappearance in the Manchester United team. But there was a strong sense that the thoroughbred Fowler had moved impressively along the rails at yesterday's work-out at the old Manchester United training ground in Salford.

These were the latest points of debate in Eriksson's extraordinary drive to transform the psychology of the English team and beyond them was more evidence of a growing conviction.

The loss of Owen, which in other regimes of the past may have been built up to the point of catastrophe, was placed firmly in the category of inconvenience. England should ride such a problem because, as he is increasingly wont to say, England is a big football country with big resources. "We are England and we should be able to deal with this," he said with some emphasis.

Certainly there would be no tactical upheaval in the absence of Anfield's Little Cesar. Of course, said Eriksson, it would not be so easy to get behind the Greek defence without Owen's blinding speed. But then Owen brought far more to the table than mere speed.

It was another hint that Fowler, accepted by many judges as England's most natural scorer, had moved strongly into focus as England prepared to make the last stride to the finals.

Eriksson agreed that automatic qualification seems a remote possibility when he inherited the team early this year with just one point gleaned from the opening games with Germany and Finland. Yes, England could make the play-offs, they could go to Japan. But finishing above Germany – as they will with victory on Saturday – was perhaps a little too fanciful to hope. Yet it had happened and for Eriksson the message was clear enough. England have the spirit and the resources to finish off the campaign with some conviction despite the loss of Owen and Sol Campbell and fears about David Seaman.

"We were fortunate before playing Germany and Albania and less so now. But that shouldn't be of great concern. The players have responded to everything I have asked of them and there is no reason for me to change any of my tactics."

It was another assured performance from the man who has so coolly produced a new set of values and a new level of confidence in England's international football. It was one to encourage Robbie Fowler and make young Frank Lampard think.