Owen's striking reply to critics

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Kevin Keegan is likely to split his "untouchables", Alan Shearer and Michael Owen, and may even sacrifice both in forthcoming friendlies as he searches for that elusive forward partnership to mount a successful challenge on next summer's Euro 2000.

Kevin Keegan is likely to split his "untouchables", Alan Shearer and Michael Owen, and may even sacrifice both in forthcoming friendlies as he searches for that elusive forward partnership to mount a successful challenge on next summer's Euro 2000.

At the end of a week in which the England coach has come under criticism - with even senior FA figures joining in the chorus of those who question his tactical awareness despite England's qualification - he believes Owen must still develop into a better player. The Liverpool striker, who answered his critics by scoring his side's opener at Sunderland yesterday, could even drop down into the Under-21 team to gain more experience.

The articulate young man, once considered a ready-made England striker for years to come, is now being spoken of again merely as a player with "potential". Keegan admits he now comprehends why Glenn Hoddle was initially reluctant to thrust the teenager into the World Cup arena in France. "I think there's improvement in Michael," said Keegan. "I remember everybody saying before France 98, and that includes me as a TV pundit, that he should be in, and Glenn had a reason not to. You saw it again against Scotland. Maybe he's still got things to learn. I've already said to him he needs to work on his left side. He could also hold the ball up better, but it was more due to lack of games and good service. But he's 19. He's got potential."

Owen, who admittedly has been stricken by hamstring problems, has scored twice in six appearances since that World Cup wonder goal against Argentina, both against Luxembourg. He started encouragingly enough at Hampden before being substituted but in the return leg David Weir rendered him largely ineffective by driving him wide. At international level, his pace cannot compensate for lack of guile.

As for Shearer, bookmakers are offering odds of 7-4 against the captain playing in England's next game, a friendly against Argentina in February, and it is likely experimentation will be on Keegan's mind. "I think it's got potential, I really do," he said of the Shearer-Owen partnership. "But against Scotland it didn't work. Maybe there's a chance to experiment with two different strikers now,one up, and one off him, like Kluivert and Bergkamp."

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