Hargreaves breaks ranks over winter hibernation

Disagreeing openly with Sven Goran Eriksson on the eve of an England match, albeit "only" the friendly with Serbia & Montenegro at Leicester tomorrow, is not necessarily the most judicious move for a player still striving to establish himself at international level. But then Owen Hargreaves - born in Canada of a Welsh mother and currently playing for Bayern Munich - always did stand out from the crowd.

The England manager had earlier declared that he had no fears about Hargreaves arriving worn out after his exertions in Saturday's German Cup final, in which Bayern beat Kaiserslautern 3-1 to complete a domestic double. The Swede argued that the long winter break in the Bundesliga ensured players stayed in peak condition until the end of the season, recalling that the 22-year-old midfielder was the fittest man in England's squad at last summer's World Cup.

Not so, countered Hargreaves when the first half of Eriksson's assertion was put to him. "I'm not sure the break is a benefit at all," he said in a accent best described as Calgary with a dash of Bavarian. "If you take a break then you you have to go to training camp again. You can lose your fitness and have to get it back again.

"On the one hand it's good to be able to take a few days' holiday with your family. On the other, if you play through without a break, you don't lose any fitness. I get three weeks off during the summer. The English-based players have six weeks. It evens out in the end."

Hargreaves, who hopes to win his 12th cap against the former Yugoslavia, arrived nursing a leg injury after being "studded" when making a run during the early stages on Saturday. He was pictured in various papers with blood streaming from a gash, but insisted it "could have been worse" and pronounced himself raring to go at the Walkers Stadium - if selected.

"We had a celebratory banquet after the final, so it was a long night and I didn't get much sleep," he admitted, again demonstrating that he is no ordinary English footballer by confessing to a night on the tiles. "I'm a bit tired but otherwise I'm feeling really good. I've every confidence that I can do myself justice and hopefully cement my place if I get the opportunity on Tuesday."

Eriksson played him in the two games immediately before the World Cup and also started him in the opening fixtures of the finals against Sweden and Argentina. However, once Hargreaves was injured after colliding with Michael Owen in the Argentina match, Nicky Butt slotted seamlessly into his role as the midfield anchorman.

The Bayern player has since been restricted to just four minutes of competitive international action, as substitute in Slovakia, plus second-half cameos against Portugal and Australia. Has he been disappointed to have become marginalised? "Disappointed is too strong a word. You have to take the ups and downs in your stride. Things may not have gone as I'd have liked, but at least I've been involved. Now I have to look on this game as my chance."

Hargreaves will be all the happier if, as expected, that chance brings the opportunity to occupy the holding role. "You get the best out of me if you play me in central midfield," he said. "That's where my strengths are best suited to and that's where I've trained every day to play for the past five or six years."

Nevertheless, he has been used at right-back, left-back and in both wide midfield positions by his club, to whom he is contracted until 2006 and whose failure to make inroads in the Champions' League has probably enhanced his comparative freshness. Nevertheless, Eriksson's praise for his versatility was qualified by a veiled warning that it could hinder his development at the highest level.

"Being able to perform a variety of roles is good for Owen's football education," the manager said. "But if his career continues like that, maybe it will be hard for him to get a settled position. It's not a problem at the moment - and he deserves to be in the squad because he is very good at winning the ball."

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