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Owen's Blues date in doubt

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Michael Owen's proposed comeback against Chelsea is in major jeopardy after the Newcastle United striker was told he could not play in the reserve game against Middlesbrough this evening.


Owen is desperate to play against Chelsea in the Premiership on Sunday and wanted to prove his fitness ahead of the arrival of the reigning champions with a run-out for the second string.


But Newcastle manager Glenn Roeder is not convinced the England international is ready to launch his first-team comeback just yet and has instructed the club's record signing not to rush his return from the career-threatening knee injury which has kept him out all season.


The decision to leave the England international out tonight is a precautionary one rather than a setback in his rehabilitation, but it will still be an irritating one for the player.


Owen, who was linked with a move to Manchester United over the weekend, is keen to prove his fitness and regain match sharpness before the end of the season, partly so that he can be involved in England's summer internationals, but also because of the immense frustration he has endured at missing so much football in a Newcastle shirt. Despite some claims the 27-year-old is more concerned about playing for his country than his club, Owen has privately spoken of the debt he feels he needs to repay to Newcastle and the club's supporters after two years of injury problems.


Roeder, though, is naturally cautious about Owen's return having lost the club's record signing for the majority of the season as a result of the injury he suffered while playing for the national side at the World Cup last summer.


There is a chance Newcastle will arrange a behind-closed-doors friendly later in the week, although it is extremely unlikely the £17m man will be involved at the weekend after failing to convince his manager he is ready to start a reserve game five days earlier.


Owen was arguably short of match sharpness in Germany because of the broken foot which forced him to miss more than half of his first season on Tyneside and the former Real Madrid star will probably need four or five games to find his best form this time.


With that in mind, Newcastle's four remaining Premiership fixtures, coupled with England's first game at the new Wembley against Brazil on June 1, would have put him in perfect shape for the vital European Championship qualification clash with Estonia on June 6.


Newcastle chairman Freddie Shepherd has indicated he is willing to go to court to seek an injunction to prevent Owen from playing for his country unless the FA come up with an acceptable package of compensation for the Magpies.


Shepherd is furious at the lack of financial support he feels the club has received from the FA after Owen's injury in Germany 10 months ago and the row - if it leads to the courtroom - could spark major changes in international football.


National associations would, in theory, have to cover the wages and pay the cost of treatment for players injured on international duty.


However, as things stand, it is difficult to see how Shepherd will be able to stop Owen from playing against Estonia, unless the player, which is unlikely, agrees he is not fit enough.


Under Fifa regulations, clubs cannot prevent their players from playing in a competitive international and a national coach can demand the release of a player five days before the game, even if his club insist he is injured.


Meanwhile, Roeder's hopes of pairing Peter Crouch with Owen in a new look front-line next season appear doomed after the Liverpool striker insisted last night that he will not be leaving Anfield.


"It has never entered my head," said Crouch, who was wanted by Roeder in the January transfer window.


"I'm happy here. There are more things to come and we will win more things and I certainly don't want to leave, but I've got to work hard and make sure I'm invaluable to the set-up, otherwise you will find yourself out of it.


"People are saying I am going to move on but I'm determined to prove I'm happy at the club and want to stay, and until I'm told otherwise I will carry on doing the same things and working hard."


United's Republic of Ireland winger Damien Duff will miss the rest of the season due to the ankle injury which forced him off during Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Portsmouth.

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