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England's strike power

While the Turkish national team basked in the late sunshine at a media friendly Barbecue described as 'relaxing', the word associated with England's preparations for their decisive Euro 2004 qualifying clash in Istanbul was 'crisis'.

And the word was apt.

The England players were refusing to travel to Turkey, in protest at the FA's handling of Rio Ferdinand's failure to appear for a mandatory drugs test, and the FA were unwilling to back down on the enforced omission of the England defender from the squad.

The country was split 50/50 between backing and blasting the players, and FA, and the evening news (not just sports publications and broadcasts) lead with the fiasco - much to Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith's displeasure as the launch of the Tory Party conference was overshadowed.

Eventually Ferdinand telephoned his team-mates and urged them to play the match. His international colleagues consequently got on the plane to Turkey with a parting shot at the FA for their lack of support and disaster was averted - leaving us to lament England's shambolic preparations.

But was it?

After all, it is difficult to think of a better team building exercise than the whole squad rallying round to support a fallen comrade. The squad probably had more meetings and discussions than since Eriksson took control in 2001 and the team now travel to Fenerbahce's Sukru Saracoglu Stadium with a siege mentality.

In terms of psychology the preparations were perfect, if somewhat unusual and unprecedented.

The real 'crisis' came hours later when it was announced that talismanic striker Michael Owen had failed to regain his fitness from a leg injury, sustained against Arsenal at the weekend, and would not travel with the England team.

Whilst that may be good news for pacy Aston Villa striker Darius Vassell - the nearest thing England have to an Owen clone - it's decidedly bad news for England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who has never won a match when Owen has been absent.

Worse still, since Alan Shearer retired from international football in the summer of 2000, England have failed to come out on top in any match where Owen has not been available.

Admittedly that is only five games - four defeats and one draw - but Owen is an integral part of Eriksson's England and the Liverpool striker has scored 13 goals in 18 competitive matches under the Swede, netting 24 times during his England career.

The worry for Eriksson is who can conjure up the necessary goal-power now that his match winner is laid up.

The England manager arrives in Istanbul.
The England manager arrives in Istanbul.

Owen's Liverpool team-mate Emile Heskey is the most experience striker in the squad and looks certain to start, despite only scoring five times in 36 internationals.

The heavy-weight striker, nicknamed Bruno, earns constant praise from his team-mates for his unselfish style but the fans are still sceptical about his ability as an orthodox striker and he is not somebody you would back to score.

Vassell, who was brought into the squad as cover for Owen, is the obvious replacement in terms of pace and style but the Aston Villa striker is short of match fitness following a groin operation and will probably have to be content with a place on the bench.

Vassell, who has netted four goals in his short England career, came off the bench to score the opener in the 2-0 win over Turkey at the Stadium of Light in April and he may be asked to deliver a repeat performance if England are struggling in Istanbul.

Southampton striker James Beattie is in great form domestically but unproven at international level and that makes Wayne Rooney, England's youngest goal-scorer, virtually a nailed-on certainty to partner Heskey in attack.

Doubts have been cast over the Everton youngster's temperament and dispersions cast on his ability to handle the tumultuous atmosphere in the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, but his talent is undoubted.

The 17-year-old combined with Heskey against Macedonia to score his first England goal and now the striker will be expected to carry England's strike threat against a country that the Three Lions have scored 31 goals against and never conceded.

If England keep another clean sheet against the Turks, however unlikely, a lack of strike power would prove no problem as a 0-0 draw would be enough to avoid the play-offs and seal automatic qualification for Euro 2004.

And the last time England went into a final group qualifier without their main striker needing just a draw?

October 1997 when England, lacking Alan Shearer, held Italy to a goalless draw in Rome to reach the World Cup finals.

History could repeat itself.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.