Keegan's England have no room for Owen

Liverpool striker's outstanding talents are overlooked as new attacking formation gives Cole striker's role against France tonight
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Increment by increment, it seems Kevin Keegan is beginning to comprehend the intricacies of international football management. Whether his education proceeds quickly enough to sustain his employment beyond Christmas is another matter but tonight, at the Stade de France, he will make a start.

Increment by increment, it seems Kevin Keegan is beginning to comprehend the intricacies of international football management. Whether his education proceeds quickly enough to sustain his employment beyond Christmas is another matter but tonight, at the Stade de France, he will make a start.

The England team Keegan will send out against the world and European champions has made significant advances towards 21st century football. Out go the isolated twin strikers, in come split strikers, as practised from Ukraine to Spain - and highly successfully by England under Bobby Robson and Terry Venables.

In addition, there is a concession to balance with Nick Barmby, a right-footer but one with experience of the position, on the left flank. The arrival of Gareth Barry, a genuine leftie, at left-back, also introduces the radical concept of playing defenders with an ability to pass.

As ever, however, there are caveats. There is logic behind the decision to play Andy Cole as the spearhead but it is at the expense of the English game's most gifted attacking force, Michael Owen, a striker who is not only eight years younger than the Manchester United No 9 but also outranks him in international experience.

This match was supposed to signify Owen's liberation from the looming shadow of Alan Shearer. Instead it raises further doubts about the relationship between the Liverpool striker and the England coach.

There should also be concern about the inclusion of Dennis Wise in a pedestrian central midfield (David Beckham has many assets, but pace is not among them) and the decision to stick with a back four in which Sol Campbell has been shoe-horned into the right-back spot and the central defence looks highly vulnerable to the likes of Thierry Henry. Injuries, notably to Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand, have to an extent forced the choice of individuals but not the formation.

Nevertheless, Keegan yesterday looked more relaxed in front of the press than he has for several months as he said it was "a straight choice" between a "disappointed" Owen and Cole. The latter's club link with Scholes and Beckham, and the sense that it was now or never for the 28-year-old, appear to have won Cole the vote.

The decision is a severe blow to Owen, who has yet to be given a full match by Keegan. He has only just regained his confidence following a recurring hamstring injury but it seemed at the weekend - when he not only scored twice at Southampton but also completed a rare 90 minutes - that he was back to his best. Keegan was at The Dell but, it seems, remains to be convinced.

Owen is one of four casualties of England's European Championship failure as Keegan seeks to rebuild ahead of next month's World Cup double-header against Germany and Finland which could decide his future. Also dropped from the team that played Romania in England's final match of Euro 2000 are Nigel Martyn, Phil Neville and Paul Ince. With Gary Neville injured and Shearer retired, there are six changes in all.

Keegan said he thought about playing Phil Neville, who was blamed for the Romania defeat, for the "psychological boost" it would give him but added: "This was the right team for this match. It is a team both to look ahead and to try and win. I am also looking for a good performance, one that makes the players feel we have taken a step forward. They are playing the best side in the world, better than any we will meet in our qualifying group."

Keegan, no stranger to hyperbole, was this time dealing in fact. France were so much better than England in the summer one would fear for them if this were a competitive match.

The back four, that will be broken up by Laurent Blanc's post-match retirement, have never finished on the losing side when playing en bloc in 29 matches dating back more than four years. The midfield includes Zinedine Zidane, whose only peers are Luis Figo and Rivaldo, and the forward line can perm from the likes of Henry, Nicolas Anelka and David Trézéguet. With the match also marking Didier Deschamps' retirement, with a record 102 caps, there will, said Keegan, "be a festival atmosphere but I would hate to think we will be a part of that. While they want to party we want a result."

On the plus side for England several of the French team, those based in Italy and Spain, are unlikely to be match-sharp as they have yet to begin their club seasons. There is little other reason for optimism, though there are signs that Shearer's retirement could be of long-term benefit.

While Shearer's partnership with Teddy Sheringham, like Gary Lineker's with Peter Beardsley, is a role model for the new Cole-Scholes combination the late-era Shearer had different strengths and both coach and players seem relieved to be out of the tactical straight-jacket they required. Beckham also spoke on Thursday of taking more responsibility and Keegan, who tipped Beckham to be a future England captain, said he was not alone in taking a more prominent role in training.

How much Beckham and Cole get the chance to justify their new roles will depend on England retaining the ball better than they did in the summer. Then, Beckham hinted, players began hitting the ball long after losing faith in the team's creative players after a stray pass or two. Tonight England must trust one another.

Comments