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Saturday, May 27, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

England's showing in World Cup warmup fails to inspire


LONDON -- When England's "B" international against Belarus on Thursday was arranged earlier this year it was seen as little more than a loosener for players who had not played club football for two or three weeks.

Christopher Davies

It was also a "reward" for Reading to host an international after a season which saw it win the Championship by a distance.

The reality was that the "B" game was of huge significance as England stepped up its preparations for the World Cup finals.

Head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said earlier in the week that Michael Owen, who captained the "B" side as he started his first game in five months, was in "his best shape for many years," a surprising statement given that the Newcastle striker had managed only 29 minutes of first-team football after breaking a metatarsal on New Year's Eve, the foot injury taking a frustratingly long time to heal.

How could a player so obviously lacking the edge that only playing regular football provides, be in such good condition?

It was one of a number of questions that would be answered at the Madejski Stadium, where Owen and most of his England "B" teammates will be playing Premiership football next season.

"I was never worried about my fitness," said Owen after playing for an hour. "I have been training hard for the past few weeks. I feel fine, I feel sharp and my foot doesn't trouble me any more."

Ashley Cole, who had missed most of 2005-06 with a foot injury, continued his comeback having played the last few games of the season for Arsenal without particularly impressing.

There was also the prospect for most of the country of seeing Arsenal teenager Theo Walcott for the first time.

Rarely can a World Cup player have been such a well-kept secret, the 17-year-old who has yet to make an appearance for Arsenal since his January transfer from Southampton, which is worth a possible £12 million to the Championship club.

The problem, sadly, was that the match, despite the hype, was little more than an international training session played out in long periods of neat silence.

With just over two weeks before England open its World Cup campaign against Paraguay, the "B" international was given disproportionate coverage and importance, but the most significant incident came in the 50th minute when, after coming on as a halftime substitute, goalkeeper Robert Green collapsed in agony as he scuffed a goal kick, with the ball going to Vitaly Kutuzov who equalized Jermaine Jenas' first-half goal.

In fact, the Norwich player had ruptured a groin muscle making an earlier save. Green will miss the World Cup which means an unlikely callup for Liverpool's Scott Carson, who has been on loan to Sheffield Wednesday this year.

Walcott's appearance in the 61st minute, at age 17 years and 70 days, was greeted like a World Cup-winning goal, and he did not disappoint.

The teenager showed Olympic pace and a confidence that belied his tender years, but it was Tottenham's Aaron Lennon who was England's man of the match.

Lennon had hardly been mentioned as a World Cup candidate at the turn of the year but the Spurs midfielder finished the season strongly and will be high in Eriksson's thoughts as he ponders his World Cup XI, which is complicated by the ongoing saga of Wayne Rooney's foot injury.

The Spurs winger has the speed to trouble any fullback and can also play inside as a more orthodox midfielder.

"For me it was good for my fitness because we've been off for a couple of weeks," said Lennon. "The senior players have helped us but you have to look past the result. We should take the positives out of the game and for me I think I did fairly well, boosting my confidence."

Eriksson said: "Owen looked well for an hour and came through the match with no problems.

"If you take the youngsters, Lennon was very, very good, very confident confirming he deserves to be in this squad. Walcott did not look shy when he came on."

The bad news for England was that despite being reduced to 10 men after the 73rd minute dismissal of Sergey Omelianchuk, Sergey Konilenko scored an 81st-minute winner for the visitors.

In the grand scheme of things the result was irrelevant, but a side full of World Cup hopefuls would not have expected to lose to rivals who will watch the World Cup finals from home.

* * *

IF THERE WERE any lingering doubts about Sir Alex Ferguson's power at Manchester United, confirmation came with the sacking of club doctor Mike Stone.

United said Stone's departure had nothing to do with the positive messages he gave to England doctor Leif Sward about Wayne Rooney's World Cup prospects but was a result of a conflict over his extra work away from the club.

Maybe, but that is the mother of all coincidences.

Ferguson has maintained that it is a "wild dream" that Rooney, who broke a metatarsal against Chelsea on April 29 can play in the World Cup and the United manager even supervised the striker's scan on Thursday, ordering an initial clampdown on all information concerning the most high profile foot injury in England.

Rooney was fond of Stone, as were all the United players, but it is not just Ferguson's Scottish background that makes him put the player's World Cup dreams down his priority list.

Ferguson wants to ensure Rooney is fit for the start of the 2006-07 season, and is concerned that rushing the player back for Germany could have long-term repercussions for United.

Fall out with Fergie at your own peril. Ask Jaap Stam, David Beckham, Roy Keane.

United may have changed owners to the Glazer family, but only one man rules at Old Trafford.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal, Chelsea and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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