Sven aglow as the world waxes lyrical about Wayne

Owen may yet survive the absence of Real match practice as Defoe waits in wonderboy's shadow
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The Independent Football

For his next trick, Wayne Rooney takes on the world. Or, to be more precise, the World Cup. Considering his impact on the Premiership, the European Championship and now the Champions' League, that is not encouraging news for England's opponents in Saturday's Group Six qualifying game on his new home ground of Old Trafford.

Nor is the fact that the Welsh defence appears to be based on a Cardiff City side struggling near the bottom of what until recently was called the First Division. If James Collins and Danny Gabbidon, the central defenders in the recent 2-2 draw at home to Northern Ireland, have not been having nightmares since Rooney dismantled a rather more experienced Fenerbahce back-line on Tuesday, they should have been. The outgoing Wales manager, Mark Hughes, who seems likely to recall either West Ham's Andy Melville or Robert Page (another Cardiff man) in place of Collins, has been forced to admit: "Ideally, we could have done with Rooney being out for a couple more weeks. I don't think anyone doubted he would have an impact for Manchester United, but no one was really expecting him to make such a big impact so soon. His return has come at the wrong time for us and, unfortunately, he's looking in pretty good nick. There's no doubt he'll be a big threat if he plays against us."

The "if" was worth dropping in, as, assuming no injuries before or after Sven Goran Eriksson names his squad this evening, England must disappoint either Rooney, Michael Owen, a first choice for six years, or Jermain Defoe, who took his chance and his customary goal in splendid fashion when boldly selected for the last game, away to Poland. Training sessions in Manchester this week - once the local squire, Sir Alex Ferguson, allows a full session to take place - should be tasty, for Eriksson insists that his selection will be based on what he sees from Tuesday onwards: "We will decide that during the week, trying different options in training and seeing how they are. I've seen a lot of Defoe, seen Rooney on Tuesday but haven't seen Michael Owen much."

Nor has anyone, of course, since Owen began a new career on the Real Madrid substitutes' bench. Eriksson still believes it was a good move for the former Liverpool striker, but admits: "It's very difficult to keep your standard up if you don't play." He has said as much to other fringe players such as Liverpool's reserve goalkeeper Chris Kirkland and the young Chelsea pair Glen Johnson and Scott Parker. But it takes a lot for one of Eriksson's regulars to play himself out of the team - as Emile Heskey regularly proved - and the most likely upshot must be that Owen will keep his place, with Rooney edging out the unlucky Defoe.

The head coach has discounted the possibility of using all three strikers ("Who's going to go out to the left? No one!") while joining the paeans of praise for the extraordinary Rooney: "He's complete, he can do everything. He can play as a target man, beat people, he's quick, shoots with his right foot and left foot and is a good header. And he's clever. It's difficult to see where he's weak. He's a phenomenon. And his confidence is incredible, the way he took the free-kick [his third goal] on Tuesday."

Perming two strikers from three is not the only test of managerial nous this week. Even if Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell are quickly restored to the centre of defence, for the first time since the former's missed drugs test a year ago, Wayne Bridge's injury has opened up that gaping chasm on the left of midfield once more. No Steven Gerrard to fill it this time, either, so Joe Cole is another who will be desperate to impress in practice. Whoever is chosen - Owen Hargreaves and Jermaine Jenas are the only other contenders - David Beckham seems certain to remain on the right rather than coming inside to give Shaun Wright-Phillips a chance.

Full of almost as much praise for Ferdinand (who he sees as a possible future captain) as for Rooney, Eriksson will be delighted to field his first-choice defence, especially as he identifies the Welsh threat in the countries' first meeting for 20 years as stemming from attacking players.

"The pace of [Craig] Bellamy and [Ryan] Giggs, the experience of [Gary] Speed and of course [John] Hartson, who knows where the goal is. It's like a local derby. Those are always special, and if you're the favourite, it doesn't mean you win a derby. A lot of respect to Wales. In Sweden we say, 'They will be eating raw meat all week' before the game. Of course they want to beat England, because we are favourites on paper and we seem like big brother to them, so that's a very difficult game for us."

There is the added incentive too for Wales of having a manager determined to leave on a high in the games on Saturday and then at home to Poland next Wednesday (when Robbie Savage will be available again). The news that Hughes wanted to return to club football with Blackburn, whom Eriksson once agreed to join before opting for Lazio in Rome, did not surprise England's manager, though the response did: "I'm surprised by the reaction of the mass media. If I'd done it, I'd have been slaughtered. I was only smelling once [at Chelsea's interest] and I was slaughtered." Fail to beat Wales or Azerbaijan and he may yet be.

England(probable): Robinson; G Neville, Ferdinand, Campbell, A Cole; Beckham, Butt, Lampard, J Cole; Owen, Rooney.

Wales (probable): P Jones; Delaney, Gabbidon, Melville, Thatcher; Davies, Koumas, Speed, Giggs; Bellamy; Hartson.


Everyone congratulated him after the game on a fantastic performance. I hope and believe he can break every single record there is for Man United.

Ruud van Nistelrooy

He's an instant cult hero but I think he will handle it. He's got no nerves.

Andy Ritchie, who scored hat-trick for United when even younger

The important thing for me is to allow the boy to develop naturally without too much public attention. I want him to be as ordinary as he can.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Wayne needs looking after and there is no better club for that than United.

David Beckham

It is something you dream of as a manager for a player to play in this way and to score in this way. Maybe he will become the player of the century.

Christoph Daum, Fenerbahce coach

There is no doubt he has made it harder for himself by raising the expectation.

Rio Ferdinand

He'll face pressure 24 hours a day. If you go out for a beer, it's multiplied by 12. If you're seen walking down the road with a girl, you're having an affair.

Norman Whiteside

You have to say that's as good as anything you've ever seen. He loves the big stage, the sky is the limit for him. Is he as good as me? Now don't be silly!

George Best

I don't know about letting him take free-kicks for England, though!

David Beckham