Smith called up as injuries blight Keegan's plans

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The Independent Online

Kevin Keegan's customary attempt to look on the bright side of Alan Shearer's retirement from the England team dimmed last night as he contemplated a striker crisis ahead of Saturday's friendly international with France in Paris.

Kevin Keegan's customary attempt to look on the bright side of Alan Shearer's retirement from the England team dimmed last night as he contemplated a striker crisis ahead of Saturday's friendly international with France in Paris.

Keegan had initially viewed his former captain's departure as a chance to look at "other options" but, yesterday, his plans were being revised after a training session in which Michael Owen was the only forward.

Emile Heskey (knee) did not even join the party while Kevin Phillips (shoulder) and Andy Cole (Achilles) are not expected to be able to train until tomorrow. Keegan has already called Alan Smith, the 19-year-old Leeds United striker, into the squad and may also summon Chris Sutton, who has started the season well at Celtic.

With Rio Ferdinand (groin), Gary Neville (hip) and Steve Gerrard (back) having been sent home, and Steve McManaman (flu) also missing the session, Keegan was unable to decide whether to make a change from the 4-4-2 formation which looked so antiquated in Euro 2000 or merely tweak it.

Keegan, who is noticeably less relaxed at present, said: "I've decided what I want to do in an ideal world but I've got to wait for the personnel to come through. For some reason we are picking up a lot of injuries. Maybe it is because we have started the season with three games in a week, sometimes two games in three days."

With so many injuries Smith has a good chance of playing. He exploded into the Leeds side less than two years ago when he scored on his debut and ended the season with 11 goals in 22 appearances. Last season was quieter but he has scored five times in four matches this season, most recently against Middlesbrough in front of Keegan on Saturday.

"He is very, very exciting and he plays in a team where he just causes problems," said Keegan. "Every time the ball came in his area he either got hold of it and played people in, or he made sure that the defender did not have much time to settle.

"He has the sort of confidence that strikers need, which is not arrogance. His attitude is: 'If I get opportunities, I'm capable of scoring goals'. On Saturday he got a goal out of nothing, it just hit him and went in. That is what happens when things are going for you."

Some would say Smith's natural confidence is more like cockiness, possibly including his new England captain, Tony Adams. He and Martin Keown were so wound up by Smith's 'verbals' when the pair first encountered him even these experienced pros lost their discipline, spending most of the match trying to kick him.

That side of Smith's game, for he is not averse to dishing out abuse to linesmen or mixing it with defenders, led David O'Leary to take Smith aside before the season and tell him he did not want him behaving "like a thug" and just to play up to the crowd. So far the lesson appears to have been heeded.

Smith's emergence eased Keegan's disappointment at Gerrard's injury. His fitness has become a concern, Gérard Houllier admitting at the weekend that he is not capable of playing twice in a week, something of a handicap in the modern game.

His problem is a back muscle injury which can manifest itself in groin and hamstring trouble. Keegan said: "There is a problem which Liverpool are well aware of and I just hope they sort it out. He is a tremendous talent. Liverpool want him fit and so do I. But not this time which makes him doubtful for next month [when England play World Cup qualifiers against Germany and Finland in the space of four days]. It's disappointing. I would have played him on Saturday, just as I would have played him against Romania [in Euro 2000]."

In Gerrard's absence Paul Ince is likely to be asked to contest midfield with Patrick Vieira. It could be a lively duel.

KEEGAN'S CROCKS (4-4-2, no goalkeeper): Gerrard (Liverpool), G Neville (Manchester Utd), Ferdinand (West Ham), Le Saux (Chelsea); Parlour (Arsenal), Batty (Leeds), Redknapp (Liverpool), Wilcox (Leeds); Heskey, Fowler (both Liverpool).

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