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Capello may regret Owen exclusion

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Phil McNulty | 09:11 GMT, Monday, 1 September 2008

Fabio Capello has already demonstrated a capacity to surprise - but it is to be hoped England do not live to regret what amounts to a massive gamble by the Italian coach.

Capello's England squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Andorra and Croatia contained two major stories, namely the inclusion of Fulham's Jimmy Bullard and the exclusion of Newcastle United striker Michael Owen.

No-one could accuse Capello of playing it safe by leaving Owen out of the squad that leaves for Barcelona later this week, but quite a few will accuse him of plenty more if England do not come back with a haul of at least four points.

Let me state straight from the start that I am an unashamed fan of Owen, but this is not the only reason I believe Capello has made a potentially grave mistake by leaving him out of his squad altogether.

There are compelling football reasons that make the case for Owen to be in side that plays in Barcelona on Saturday and Zagreb next Wednesday - and for him not even to be in the squad is baffling.

Capello clearly questions what Owen can bring to his new England era. He has used him only as a substitute in the defeat in France and seems suspicious about whether he can deliver at the top level any more.

The case against Owen is a constant battle against injuries in recent times, and even a bout of illness that laid him low this summer.

The case for is a simple one. Who is best equipped to take what might only be one chance to give England a vital goal in Croatia?

In a squad not exactly bulging with goals, that man remains Michael Owen by some distance, and my view is that he should be partnering Wayne Rooney in Zagreb.

Capello watched Owen in Newcastle's 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday and obviously did not see enough to warrant inclusion for England.

True, he is still short of match sharpness, but this will improve again in the days before the two games, and even in these reduced circumstances he has still scored the goals that won games for Newcastle against Bolton and Coventry.

Jermain Defoe has yet to produce a defining moment at international level, while Theo Walcott has yet to deliver on a consistent basis for Arsenal, let alone England.

Owen, in sharp contrast, is a proven scorer of crucial goals at every level - and his name and reputation alone still makes the best international defenders take a step back.

Emile Heskey just about passes muster as an alternative to the relatively diminutive forwards - what has happened to Peter Crouch and Dean Ashton? - but I have an uneasy feeling, as Alan Shearer expressed on MOTD2 last night, about England going to Zagreb without Owen.

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The selection of Fulham's Bullard is a marvellous story, and great testimony to the character of the 29-year-old who started his career with Gravesend and Northfleet and who battled back from an horrendous knee injury in September 2006.

He has profited from injuries to Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves, as well as from any emerging youngsters stating an irressistible case for inclusion.

But he is hardly one for the future and his best hope of a cap seems to lie in England being roughly five goals ahead of Andorra with 20 minutes left. He will surely have no place in Zagreb, which is the true acid test of Capello's new regime.

The exclusion of Spurs defender Jonathan Woodgate is another surprise, especially given that he has been dropped in favour of the returning Joleon Lescott, who has made an awful start to the season at Everton.

But it is Owen's exclusion that will be the main bone of contention and debate - and undoubtedly recrimination, if England fail in Croatia.

Capello, in my opinion, has committed a needless error in not even giving himself the safety net of having Owen in his squad.

It is a decision that ratchets up the pressure another notch on Capello, especially with the misery of England's display against the Czech Republic at Wembley still souring the memory.

They say fortune favours the brave. For Capello's sake it is to be hoped that is true.

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