Owen goes on the attack to defend under-fire Eriksson

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The Independent Online

A dead leg kept Owen, 25, out of Newcastle's draw with Portsmouth at the weekend, and left Eriksson facing the prospect of being without both his first-choice strikers given Wayne Rooney's suspension. However, Owen said that he was fit to play in the last two matches of England's campaign ­ against Austria and Poland ­ as the responsibility for scoring the goals falls to him on Saturday.

After naming Peter Crouch among the strikers in his squad on Sunday night, the smart money is on Eriksson returning to a 4-4-2 formation with the Liverpool striker in support of Owen in attack.

Crouch hopes to be given the chance to make his mark in what would be only his second start for his country. "There are a lot of good strikers in England but I'd like to think I'm a little bit different and can bring something different to the England set-up," he said.

Crouch and Owen have just two goals between them all season, but it was alongside Crouch that Owen scored the last three goals of his 32 for England when they partnered each other against Colombia in America in May.

Crouch could be Owen's ideal partner up front, but it is still unclear what Eriksson's central defensive pairing will be ­ although it is believed Sol Campbell is very close to being preferred to either Rio Ferdinand or John Terry.

"There has been a lot written about supposed disharmony in the dressing-room, but nothing could be further from the truth," Owen said. "This is a tight squad, with a firm belief both in ourselves and in Sven Goran Eriksson and the coaching staff. Team spirit will be important over the coming days. Rest assured, it is as strong as ever.

"The players are fully behind the manager. His record in competitive games is outstanding, and people seem to have forgotten that the defeat against Northern Ireland was his first in a qualifier in over four years. I've not changed my belief that he is the right man to lead us to Germany."

Before last weekend, Owen had scored on his previous two performances for Newcastle against Blackburn and Manchester City and had appeared to be recapturing the goalscoring form that had characterised his single season with Real Madrid. Against Northern Ireland last month, however, he had looked isolated in the 4-5-1 formation.

Owen had been suspended for the victory over Wales in Cardiff and, in the days leading up to the match against Northern Ireland, his return to the team was by no means guaranteed. England had settled into a 4-5-1 formation and Eriksson's subsequent alteration of it for the Belfast match ­ which involved moving Rooney into a left-wing berth ­ was a factor contributing to that defeat.

Owen said: "I have been impatient for these matches since the defeat to Northern Ireland. This is our chance to put things right. I can't wait to get on to the Old Trafford pitch and I'm sure the rest of the lads are the same.

"We know the performance was not acceptable. We are determined to react in the most positive way. We still have automatic qualification in our own hands, and two victories will see us in Germany next year."

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