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Premier League

Keegan sets fitness test for Fowler to regain place

Kevin Keegan has insisted that Robbie Fowler is "too important" to Manchester City just to be cast aside.

Kevin Keegan has insisted that Robbie Fowler is "too important" to Manchester City just to be cast aside.

The £6m former England striker has been left out of City's first-team squad recently since he was asked to improve his fitness by Keegan after failing to impress since his move from Leeds United in January last year.

Fowler remained behind at the Blues' Carrington training ground to continue his personal training programme as Keegan took a 17-man party down to the south coast for tomorrow's encounter with Southampton and, with the international break coming up, it will be a fortnight before he has a chance of winning his place back.

There has been plenty of speculation that the 29-year-old has played his last game for City, especially as he was fined and publicly rebuked by Keegan after storming out of Eastlands when he was substituted during the 1-0 home defeat to Everton earlier this month.

But Keegan insists that he retains the utmost confidence in Fowler and is adamant the former Liverpool star will be back.

"Robbie Fowler is too good a player, and too important to us for him not to get back into the starting line-up," Keegan said. "This is not a punishment, we just sat down with him and came up with a programme that can help him achieve the targets that will get him back to where we know he can be.

"People have to remember he had two horrific injuries before he joined us, both of which are capable of ending careers. He has not had it easy but, despite what some people might say, he is committed to the club and has good strength of character. He will come through this, I am convinced of it."

Fowler has so far scored just 13 times in 59 appearances since he moved across the Pennines from Elland Road.

Leeds are due a further £500,000 payment when the striker makes his next first-team appearance for the Blues, although there is no suggestion that the financial aspect has had any bearing on the situation.

Many believe that Fowler has not been the same player since suffering a knee injury during his Anfield days that ruled him out of almost the entire 1997-98 campaign.

In addition, just two years ago, Fowler also had to undergo hip surgery for an injury similar to the one Roy Keane admitted came close to ending his career, and he has struggled to recapture the form that saw him score 83 goals in 160 league appearances in his first four years at Liverpool.

"Robbie has set terrifically high standards and that brings with it increased expectation," Keegan said. "For most players, going three or four games without a goal is the norm, but for a striker who has achieved what he has done, it represents a crisis. You set the bar at such a level that if you don't reach it, people start to question you.

"The answers now lie between Robbie and the fitness coach, but I am convinced what we are doing now is right for the player and Manchester City. The only thing that will prove me right or wrong is when Robbie comes back and starts scoring goals again."

With Fowler staying behind, Keegan's squad for the visit to Southampton is lacking Antoine Sibierski, who has been ruled out with fractured ribs.

Claudio Reyna and Trevor Sinclair are also missing and, with Mikkel Bischoff allowed to join Wolves on loan, and the former Liverpool midfielder Bernard Diomède released from his trial period without the offer of a contract, Sun Jihai is likely to replace Sibierski in midfield following his excellent performance against Arsenal last weekend.

The Chinese full-back has struggled to establish himself in the City first-team since joining the club from Dalian Wanda in February 2002 and has started just two games so far this season. But Keegan is convinced that he can improve his consistency and confirmed he intends to extend the 27-year-old's stay at Eastlands. "His contract is up at the end of the season and I started talks with his representative earlier this week," Keegan said.