It may yet be too early in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign to start experimenting with a three-man defence in the 3-5-2 system, but the return of Rio Ferdinand to play alongside John Terry against Macedonia tomorrow will give the England manager, Steve McClaren, extra reassurance. And Ferdinand's swift return from a bruised toe was put in perspective last week by a visit from one of England's long-term absentees.
Michael Owen dropped into the England team hotel in Manchester before they left for Skopje yesterday to pay his old comrades a visit, although it will be some time before the Newcastle United forward is back in serious action. His cruciate ligament injury at the World Cup finals, following a broken metatarsal on New Year's Eve, were a reminder that not every England player has the immediate opportunity to banish memories of Germany 2006.
Owen has hardly been mentioned in McClaren's bold new plans for the team - in fact, when David Beckham was pushed out by the new England manager, there was barely a mention of the fact that Steven Gerrard had supplanted Owen as the team's vice-captain. The role may only be a consolation prize for the Liverpool captain, but it also showed that Owen has fallen a few places lower down the order - the injury meant he was never even in the running to replace Beckham as captain.
As his team travelled yesterday without the injured Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland or Charlton's Luke Young, McClaren belatedly paid tribute to Owen, and made a public assurance that the 26-year-old would not be forgotten. The England manager has kept track of Owen's progress and the player will be in America this week for his second operation on the knee he injured so badly after less than a minute against Sweden in Cologne.
"I wish him all the best," McClaren said. "Michael came to have lunch with us in Manchester last week, and it was great for all of us to see him. He is a key player for us, so it's important that he stays involved while he is getting back to fitness. I am looking forward to having him back in the squad for good."
How Beckham would treasure an invitation like that, although there are no guarantees for Owen that he will ever be the certain first XI starter he was under Sven Goran Eriksson. Owen said himself yesterday that he hoped to combine his recovery with fitness work that would enable him to come back stronger, although there is no certainty he will play for England again before the home Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel on 8 September next year.
Ferdinand said yesterday he was ready to start against Macedonia after bruising his toe on the opening day of the Premiership season, an injury that was briefly regarded by Sir Alex Ferguson as another broken metatarsal scare. The 27-year-old, who will win his 54th cap tomorrow, said yesterday he had reconciled himself to the failings of the summer's World Cup.
"The World Cup is gone. I had all summer to mull it over, and what went wrong and what went right," Ferdinand said. "You look at yourself first and ask, 'What more could I have done personally to help the cause?' I had long enough to think about that World Cup. But now the season has started my focus is Manchester United and the Euro 2008 qualifiers.
"It is about forward thinking and I've also become a father, which has been brilliant. Obviously, football is in my blood and always will be, my life has always revolved around it. Now that I have a baby and a family my life will revolve around them - I'll enjoy balancing the two."
Ferdinand said that McClaren had laid out very clearly for the players the standards that he expected of them, and he would have noticed from the stands on Saturday that the England manager briefly switched to a three-man defensive line against Andorra. Against such lightweight opposition, it was a no-risk experiment but, given McClaren's fondness for the system with Middlesbrough, England may not have seen the last of the three-man defence.
It has been discussed between McClaren and his assistant Terry Venables, but they may test the three-man back line if the conditions favour it tomorrow night. Venables was the England coach who invited a 17-year-old Ferdinand to train with the Euro 1996 squad and, 10 years on, Ferdinand said that he had always held Venables "in high esteem".
For Kirkland, the back problems that have blighted the 25-year-old's career seem to have surfaced again, and he did not even travel south for yesterday's training session. Scott Carson is with the Under-21 squad in Switzerland and will act as back-up if necessary for Paul Robinson and Ben Foster. Young is also out with an ankle problem, but, apart from Ferdinand's inclusion ahead of Wes Brown, England should start unchanged from Saturday.Reuse content