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By ESPN Staff

Owen targets Magpies' Derby clash for return

Newcastle striker Michael Owen could be unleashed on Premier League strugglers Derby as he nears a return to action.

The 27-year-old England international is expected to resume full training at the end of the week and while Saturday's trip to Fulham could come just too soon, manager Sam Allardyce is confident he will definitely ready by the time the bottom-of-the-table Rams head for St James' Park eight days later.

Owen has not played since tearing a thigh muscle in his country's friendly victory over Austria last month, an injury which forced him out of the decisive Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia.

Allardyce, who took to his bed after his side's last-gasp 2-1 victory over Birmingham as he battled a chest infection, was at least soothed by the news that his star striker and some of his other absentees are on the mend.

He said: 'After the way we came back on Saturday, I feel great.

'Now we are looking for more good news by getting some players back for Saturday's game with Fulham at Craven Cottage.

'I have arranged a behind-closed-doors game this week when we are hoping that the likes of Damien Duff, Abdoulaye Faye, Claudio Cacapa and Shola Ameobi will all play.

'Michael Owen will probably not play in it, but we are expecting him back with the rest of the first team squad nearer the end of the week.

'If Saturday will probably come too early for him, he should certainly be back for the game with Derby County at St James' Park a week on Sunday.'

Owen's return could hardly come at a better time for Allardyce, who is facing up to the prospect of losing Nigeria international Obafemi Martins for up to six games on African Nations Cup duty with boss Berti Vogts planning to get his squad together a full fortnight before the tournament gets underway in Ghana on January 20.

He will head off after Manchester City's visit to Tyneside on January 2 and depending on how far Nigeria progress, may not return until the middle of February.

Owen's time at Newcastle has been blighted by injuries - he has managed only 25 appearances for the club since his £17million move from Real Madrid in August 2005.

He has rarely been fully fit after long hauls back from a fractured metatarsal and then the ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury his suffered at the 2005 World Cup finals in Germany.

Speculation persists over his future at Newcastle with former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson having been linked with an £8million bid to take him to Manchester City next month.

However, with Martins out of the equation, Allardyce will hope the former Liverpool man can return to top form quickly for what will be a crucial period in his club's season.

But if Owen is on the way back, one of his team-mates is on the way out.

Full-back Celestine Babayaro has played his last game for the club after he and the Magpies reached an agreement to pay up the remaining part of his contract, which is due to expire at the end of the season.

The 29-year-old Nigeria international was signed by former boss Graeme Souness for £1million from Chelsea in January 2005, but has not appeared in a senior game since March because of a succession of injuries and a lack of form.

Babayaro, who played Champions League football for Anderlecht as a teenager, never really won over the club's fans, although was praised for his courage when he turned out in the 2-1 Barclays Premier League win over Liverpool in February just hours after the death of his younger brother.