Injury forces Owen to miss England game

The Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, has thrown doubt on Michael Owen's chances of playing for England against Denmark at Old Trafford later this month.

Nevertheless, he is aiming to get the 23-year-old striker fit to confront Manchester United in Sunday's game at Anfield. Owen was left behind on Merseyside because of his ankle problem yesterday as Liverpool flew to Romania for tomorrow's Uefa Cup tie with Steaua Bucharest.

Houllier is hoping Owen will be available to face United in the Premiership but could pull him out of the England squad which will assemble for the following Sunday's friendly international.

"He may well have been able to play in Bucharest, but it is a gamble and not a risk I want to take," Houllier said. "If he plays on Thursday he may well not make it for the Sunday game against Manchester United. But I doubt he will make it for England."

Owen has been struggling with injuries since damaging a shin last month against Arsenal, a problem which cost him his place in England's Euro 2004 qualifier in Turkey. He then missed two Liverpool games but returned to score in the 3-1 win over Leeds on 25 October. However, the striker managed only an hour of the game at Anfield before being taken off by Houllier.

It has become clear that he acquired an ankle injury against Leeds and missed the Carling Cup win at Blackburn Rovers, before playing another hour in Sunday's 2-1 victory at Fulham.

Houllier confirmed: "This is a different injury to the one he had against Arsenal. That was a shin injury, but this is now his ankle. The two are not related. He has had it for a certain time, and it settles well and the pain goes after three or four days.

"At the end of the day we want the best for his fitness as well. I do not want to gamble with his health. If he has a recurring injury it is best at some stage to give him a week and see how he does."

Houllier is preparing to face the Romanians without Owen, who set a new club record for European goals when he scored in the last round in Slovenia against Olimpija Ljubljana. The fact that Liverpool can turn to a frontline partnership of Emile Heskey and Harry Kewell - or could even play the French teenager Florent Sinama-Pongolle - has given them the breathing space to give Owen a rest.

Heskey has recovered from the toe injury which affected him at Loftus Road on Sunday, and Pongolle is also fit after the late tackle for which Luis Boa Morte was sent off.

"Florent has received a call from Luis personally to apologise, and we appreciate that," Houllier said. "He was obviously just frustrated."

Liverpool make the trip to Bucharest for the second time in three years. They beat Steaua's city rivals, Rapid, 1-0 away and on aggregate on their way to winning the trophy in the 2000-01 season.

Steaua will be hoping to answer the prayers of their main shareholder, Gigi Becali. Becali, a fervent Orthodox Christian, has promised to build a church if the Romanian side, who were the European champions in 1986, can overcome Liverpool over the two legs.

Steaua already have one English scalp to their name this season after beating Southampton in the first round, but their coach, Victor Piturca, believes Houllier's side will provide sterner opposition.

"Liverpool are a better team than Southampton," Piturca said. "Our future opponents didn't have a great start this season but when you take a look at the names in their team you have a feeling of respect and even fear. I don't enjoy saying it but the odds are against us."

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