Michael Owen's England career looked last night as if it could be over after Fabio Capello left the striker out of the national squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Andorra and Croatia. The England manager sprang another surprise by picking Fulham's Jimmy Bullard as the fourth-choice central midfielder.
It is the first time a fit Owen has been omitted from an England squad since he broke into the international scene as a teenager 10 years ago and demonstrates just how little Capello rates the man who has 40 goals for his country, the fourth-highest tally of all time. Owen has played just once for Capello, as a substitute in the defeat to France in March, and, at 28, he must fear he will never surpass Sir Bobby Charlton's 49-goal England record – at least while the Italian is in charge.
Leaving Owen out altogether is a high-risk strategy for Capello, who has picked Theo Walcott in his place. Having also omitted Peter Crouch, the England manager has selected Wayne Rooney, Jermain Defoe and Emile Heskey, who have just 24 goals between them in a combined total of 119 caps. Owen has 40 goals in 89 appearances and Crouch 14 in 28. Capello's pronouncement that "no one is untouchable" in his side has been borne out by his actions, although he will know that failure in Zagreb on 10 September will provoke bitter recriminations.
Fail in Zagreb – or, God forbid, against Andorra – and Capello will be asked why he dropped Owen in favour of Walcott, who has yet to deliver consistently for Arsenal, and Heskey, whose record of goals for England is five in 46 with only two of those in competitive games. On a salary averaging £6m a year, Capello would argue he is being paid to make difficult decisions, but he has put himself under pressure from the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Owen missed much of pre-season having caught the mumps at the end of last season, a virus that meant he had to withdraw from England's friendlies against the United States and Trinidad & Tobago. He returned for Newcastle against Bolton on 23 August and scored against them and Coventry in the Carling Cup three days later. He has been a regular for England since the 1998 World Cup finals when he burst through the Argentina defence to score a memorable solo goal in St Etienne.
Capello is not the kind of manager likely to go into detail on why he has left Owen out, although he has voiced concerns in the past that there is not much more to Owen's game than goals. The question is: what more does he want? There is no doubt that Owen's famous pace has faded with the years and injuries but no other player in the England squad has proved as capable of scoring important goals.
It means that against Andorra and Croatia, Capello is likely to pick a strike pairing of Rooney and Defoe, the line-up he started with against the Czech Republic last month. Then Capello argued that he had deployed Steven Gerrard and Defoe behind Rooney as part of a 4-3-2-1 formation. Heskey played in the second half to little effect. Before the game, Capello bizarrely argued that Walcott had been playing as a striker for Arsenal when Arsène Wenger has more often deployed him on the right. With two caps and 46 minutes playing time for England, Walcott is yet to score for his country.
The selection of Bullard is surprising but there was always likely to be a wild-card place among the central midfielders given that Gerrard, Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves are all injured. Capello has overlooked Tom Huddlestone, Scott Parker and Nigel Reo-Coker to give the Fulham midfielder his first call-up. Bullard, 30 next month, is not exactly one for the future and demonstrates that Capello does not regard the players he has coming through from the Under-21s particularly highly.
Frank Lampard left Stamford Bridge yesterday with a limp after his side's draw with Tottenham, although he is expected to be fit. With Capello's squad meeting today he cannot afford any more injuries, especially in central midfield where Jermaine Jenas and Bullard are the cover for Gareth Barry and Lampard. In defence, Jonathan Woodgate is another surprise omission from the squad.