Owen's injury sounds alarm for Souness and Eriksson

'It's an absolute disaster. Michael is the last player you would want injured'
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The Independent Football

As Anthony Gardner and Paul Robinson hesitated, the antennae of England's finest goalscorer buzzed. Slipping past Gardner, Michael Owen stretched for the ball. He was met by 15 stone of Yorkshire muscle as Robinson also lunged forward. Crushed by Robinson's knee, a small bone in Owen's right foot, unprotected by the soft leather uppers of his boot, cracked.

In that instant Newcastle United waved goodbye to any prospect of European football next season; Graeme Souness, their manager, became an even hotter candidate for the sack; and the winter holiday of Sven Goran Eriksson was soured.

Once he had digested the news that the fifth metatarsal (the bone leading to the little toe) was broken, Owen was quick to insist he will be fit for the World Cup.

With more than five months before England play their opening game, against Paraguay in Frankfurt, he should be. He may even be much sharper, after having an enforced break, than he would have been after carrying Newcastle's stuttering side for nine months. "It's disappointing but everyone gets their fair share [of injuries]," he said. "If there's any consolation I've got plenty of time before the World Cup."

Owen, who is expected to have surgery this week, added: "There's no quick way, it's two and a half months or three months [out]. It is the same for everyone and loads of people have had it - Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard. From what all the experts are telling me it won't threaten my appearance at the World Cup."

But metatarsal injuries can be troublesome, as Owen's club team-mate Scott Parker knows. "You have to get this type of injury right first time," Souness said. "Scott was out for around nine months, and I think he ended up having it pinned."

Part of Parker's problem was that he attempted to come back too soon. Given Newcastle's reliance on the striker they signed for £17m this autumn, the temptation to rush Owen back may be overwhelming in the spring.

At present Souness is saying the right things, stating: "It's rest now for Michael." But he added: "It's a mighty blow. I can't begin to tell you how big a loss he will be. It's an absolute disaster for him and an absolute disaster for the club. It's a dark day for us. Without taking anything away from any other player, Michael is the last player you would want to get injured. You can be on the back foot, not playing well, and he will snatch a goal and shed a whole different light on the game."

Owen, 26, had scored seven goals in 10 games for Newcastle and the club have won only once in the Premiership this season without him. Souness added that he did not know if he would be given funds to find a replacement in the transfer window.

Should the initial diagnosis, that Owen will be out for around 10 weeks, prove correct he should only miss one England match, the March friendly, possibly against Uruguay.

However, Eriksson will be anxious. In the 2002 World Cup finals metatarsal injuries hampered Beckham's effectiveness and completely ruled out Gary Neville. Even with Rooney's emergence Owen is very important to the team. His 35 goals include strikes in England's last four tournaments, and three in the last two matches.

"Obviously, I'm very disappointed for Michael," Eriksson said. "It's very bad luck for him and for Newcastle United. Michael is a fantastic striker and a very important player for his club and for England. I hope that he returns to fitness as soon as possible and I will follow his progress very closely."

Jermain Defoe is the nearest like-for-like replacement, but he is unable to hold down a starting place at Spurs. Eriksson may turn during Owen's absence to Darius Vassell, who has enjoyed a renaissance at Manchester City, or pair Rooney with Peter Crouch.

As well as the concern over Owen, the injury was a reminder to Eriksson that from now on, every weekend will bring worries about the fitness as well as the form of his leading players. He knows England's starting XI is a match for most opponents but the squad lack the depth of rivals such as Brazil and Italy.

Souness' woes were increased yesterday when the former Tottenham manager David Pleat accused Newcastle of relying too heavily on Shearer. Pleat believes Shearer can no longer be considered anywhere near the force he once was in the Premiership, yet Newcastle will look to him for goals more than ever in the coming months after Owen's injury.

"There is no question they have got problems," Pleat said. "I don't think Alan Shearer can do it consistently at all. He is 35, not 25, and it is unfair to expect it of him but they have this aura about Shearer where they have to play him.

"He is not able to produce it, particularly away from home and several games a week is too much for him. He is finding it hard. Shearer at half pace will still score goals but [you wonder] if they have lowered their standards for what is required.

"Certain parts of the team look unco-ordinated. The centre-backs are getting some stick and don't look happy bunnies playing in partnership.

"Their recruitment policy has not been good. If your recruitment is poor and you make too many mistakes you are on a [slippery] slope," Pleat added.

Souness spent yesterday filtering his options for today's Tyne-Tees derby at St James' Park.

Shay Given (with a damaged thumb) and Peter Ramage (Achilles) were also injured at White Hart Lane, joining a sick list that includes Kieron Dyer, Emre, Stephen Carr, Craig Moore and Steven Taylor. In addition, Lee Bowyer is suspended.

After two successive Premiership defeats, both of them accompanied by very poor performances, the Scot is again under pressure.