Owen on the attack to reclaim starting place

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The Independent Football

The 25-year-old was terse in his assertion that he did not feel he was required to be "especially thankful if the manager decided to play me". Although Owen's appearance to speak on behalf of the team at their hotel in Belfast yesterday amounted to a sign from the Football Association that he would play in the World Cup qualifier, that is not understood to be a complete certainty yet in the mind of Eriksson.

The England manager set up a team in training yesterday that was understood to be identical to the one which, without the suspended Owen, started against Wales on Saturday and the Swede would be entitled to be covert about his line-up for tomorrow night. He could not have been happy that his new 4-5-1 system was revealed as early as four days before the team lined up in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Perhaps the uncertainty about his status for tomorrow night at Windsor Park contributed to the defensiveness about Owen that he conveyed when he was asked whether he believed he should assume that he would return to the side at the expense of either Joe Cole or Shaun Wright-Phillips. He has spent enough time as a substitute at Real Madrid last season not to want to start the new campaign on the bench.

"I don't assume anything and I don't know what team the manager will pick," he said. "It's a bit awkward answering that question at the moment. Football is football and the best 11 players play. If I am in that team I won't sit around asking why I am not playing, and vice versa. I am confident of what I have done in the past for this team.

"In terms of recent performances I don't think anyone did well against Denmark. Before that I scored a hat-trick against Colombia in America. I won't be especially thankful if the manager decided to play me. I don't think people owe me any favours."

To stay with 4-5-1 or abandon it for the more familiar structure of 4-4-2, will be the question that Eriksson has to consider at the final training session today - whether he gives David Beckham another shot at a holding midfield role he so clearly enjoyed on Saturday and consigns the lone striker, Wayne Rooney or Owen, to an evening of labouring alone. The vagaries of England's latest tactical departure did not seem a cause for concern for Owen, who dismissed the fears over it as the "next fad".

"I haven't played in that formation for England before but if it's done properly I don't see any problems," he said. "If we don't play well and support doesn't arrive for the strikers you won't play well as a team. I am comfortable that if I am asked to do it that I can do the job well. Everyone knows I'm not six feet tall [and suitable for long balls] but I use it to my advantage.

"England have been criticised in the past for lumping the ball long and then it moves on to the next criticism or the next fad. The way football is played is about passing the ball and we have a lot of skilful players who can pass the ball."

Should Owen be reinstated to the England line-up, and the 4-5-1 formation survives, then it will almost certainly mean the relocation of Rooney to the right wing at the expense of Wright-Phillips - a role that the Manchester United striker occupies for his club. Owen's bemusement with the assumption that this formation would necessitate an entirely new approach from him was based on his belief that he and Rooney have already improvised before.

"Even when we have played for England in the past - and Wayne and I have played together for more than a year - it is not as if we play two up front all the time anyway. Wayne has always played more behind me. He wouldn't [in 4-5-1] always be out in the wing, he will be tucking in behind the main striker."

Given the fury one loose comment provoked in Azerbaijan's manager Carlos Alberto, Owen, with 32 goals for England, dodged the opportunity to predict a few more tomorrow night to push him closer to Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 49. Instead, he spoke passionately about his return to the Premiership and the challenge that it offered him personally.

Owen talked about waking every morning to turn on the television and be confronted with the top goalscorers' chart and the league table. "The buzz," he said, "of waking up and having it in your blood. Having to grit your teeth and do whatever is needed." He said he had missed the "intense pressure" while in Spain where he could not understand what the newspapers were saying about him. He sounded like a man who could not wait until Saturday for his first match and would rather start tomorrow night.