Injured Owen and Scholes out of Italy game

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The Independent Football

The clouds darkened over England's brave new dawn yesterday as injuries conspired against Peter Taylor, as they did against so many of his permanent predecessors. Most damaging for the caretaker coach was the loss, before the squad had even left Luton for Turin, of two of his finest young players, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes.

The clouds darkened over England's brave new dawn yesterday as injuries conspired against Peter Taylor, as they did against so many of his permanent predecessors. Most damaging for the caretaker coach was the loss, before the squad had even left Luton for Turin, of two of his finest young players, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes.

The pair followed the weekend withdrawals, Wes Brown and Alan Smith, in pulling out of tomorrow's friendly against Italy, after morning training at Bisham Abbey. Their departures, Owen with a back injury, Scholes with a thigh problem, robs Taylor's already youthful squad of two of its senior internationals.

In addition, his most experienced player, Gareth Southgate, is doubtful with a cut eye. Steven Gerrard, meanwhile, has not yet pulled out but, given his previous problems with a back injury, must be considered unlikely to play three matches in six days.

"It is a blow," said Taylor, who will name his team today. "But I'm still happy with the team we will put out on Wednesday night. To lose four players out of 26 is not too bad."

In Owen's absence, Kevin Phillips is likely to partner Heskey up front for the first time. So far they have had one minute together against Argentina and seven against Malta. No goals resulted. The other alternative is the all-Anfield combination of Robbie Fowler and Heskey. Fowler is still struggling to recover his form following his lengthy absence with injury while Phillips has only scored a penalty - and missed one - in his last eight matches. At least Heskey is scoring goals, nine in seven games.

"He's added goals to his game," noted Taylor, who capped Heskey regularly in the Under-21s. "He is looking a very good target man. He has options to his game. He can go beyond defenders or receive the ball to feet."

Like the other Liverpool players involved in Sunday's victory at Coventry, Heskey sat out yesterday's training session. Shared by Taylor and Steve McClaren, his assistant, it was watched carefully by Tord Grip, the right-hand man of the coach-elect Sven Goran Eriksson.

Grip, who bears the official title of scout but is likely to be much more involved than that suggests, had dinner with Taylor and McClaren at the weekend. He also watched Leicester against Newcastle and Chelsea v Leeds. Having attended training, he then travelled to Italy with the team.

"I invited him to join us to get to know the players," said Taylor. "He seems a very nice fellow."

Grip has also already become acquainted with some of the job's negatives. His decision to go to Stamford Bridge prompted the extraordinary Daily Mail back-page banner headline: 'Losing his Grip'. The justification was the presence of rather more Englishmen at Liverpool v Coventry than Chelsea v Leeds but, since Anfield is 160 miles further from Bisham Abbey than Stamford Bridge, and Grip has three months to become acquainted with the likes of Heskey and Gerrard, it did seem unduly provocative.

No wonder, when I introduced myself to him at Bisham Abbey yesterday, he looked like a startled rabbit at the sight of an English journalist.

Taylor also spoke, by telephone, to Eriksson and will meet him in Turin.

"He was very supportive and keen to stress he would prefer to leave things completely to me for this match," said Taylor. "I am very happy with that."

Looking at Taylor's squad, Eriksson's eagerness to avoid any responsibility is understandable. It may seem bizarre to describe a 20-year-old as one of his most experienced players but Owen, with 24 caps, was one of only seven in his original 26-man squad to have reached double figures in international starts.

Since the Italians, who are playing their fourth game under Giovanni Trapattoni, appear to be taking this match seriously England's inexperience could be seriously exposed.

"This is an important game for us, not a friendly," said Trapattoni, who has overseen victories over Romania and Moldova and a draw in Hungary. He has selected several 30-somethings in his squad, hardly surprising since they are of the calibre of Paolo Maldini and Demetrio Albertini.

None of which detracted from the buoyant mood among the England squad. David Beckham, the new captain, took a leading role in training, though his free-kick practice was more notable for some outstanding saves from Richard Wright. It was also useful practice for Ipswich Town's visit to Old Trafford.

The rumoured split between Manchester United and Liverpool players was not apparent, though McClaren took great pleasure in announcing Fowler would be given the yellow bib to signify the day's "worst trainer". Earlier McClaren had given Beckham a contentious decision only for Rio Ferdinand to exclaim "what is this - a United thing?"

It was impossible, though, to escape the squad's collective youth. When the session closed with an 'oldies v youngsters' match Beckham, at 25, captained the 'oldies'.

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