Sir Alex Ferguson has given Michael Owen hope of salvaging his World Cup aspirations by promising the Manchester United striker more opportunities in the second half of the season.
Ferguson appeared to have dealt a serious blow to Owen's chances of persuading Fabio Capello to include him in the England squad for South Africa when the United manager admitted this month he could not imagine playing Owen and first-choice striker Wayne Rooney in the same team.
Ferguson said the pair were identical in style and Rooney was playing too well to rest him.
Indeed, Owen has been relegated to the substitutes' bench for six ofthe last seven games since scoring a hattrick against Wolfsburg inearly December, and has made only four Barclays Premier League startssince moving to Old Trafford last summer in the hope of reviving hisinternational career.
His time at United hit a new low lastweekend when Ferguson opted to send on untried Senegal striker MameBiram Diouf ahead of Owen with United looking for a winning goal duringthe 1-1 draw at Birmingham.
But the manager issued a different message ahead of today's game at home to Burnley, saying: 'Michael is not out of the equation at all - he will come into it.
'He needs games and I think we are going to try to solve that problem because his training form has been good. I have no problem with that. It is just the blend of your strikers.
'We like to see Wayne Rooney going through the middle and we want to encourage him to get 20 goals. But Wayne can't play every game, there is no doubt about that.
'If you want to retain his freshness for the important games that are ahead we will have to make changes sometimes.
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'Everyone knows that Michael is a last-defender player, there is nobody better than him. His movement and positional sense in the last third of the field is excellent.'
Ferguson would still prefer to play either Rooney or Owen alongside Dimitar Berbatov, rather than dropping Rooney into a deeper role behind his fellow Englishman.
But, although Berbatov trained every day on United's warm-weather trip to Qatar this week, his persistent knee problems and the possibility of surgery could yet open the door to Owen.
'It's a difficult one,' Ferguson said. 'The advice was to have an exploratory operation but Dimitar wants to play through it.
'Sometimes he feels it and sometimes he doesn't. If we can see it through to the end of the season then all the better.'
Ferguson had less optimistic news for Tomasz Kuszczak, however, admitting the Poland goalkeeper will step down as soon as Edwin van der Sar is ready to play after his knee injury.
That could be as early as today after Van der Sar trained this week on his return from Holland, where his wife, Annemarie, has been recovering since suffering a brain h a emorrhae before Christmas.
Ferguson said: 'Whether he plays depends on Edwin himself. I know that for a young lad like Tomasz Kuszczak, it will be disappointing, but experience is vital and Van der Sar is a phenomenal goalkeeper.'
Ferguson also revealed that injured England pair Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves are close to a firstteam return as United prepare to take on a Burnley side who shocked the champions by winning 1-0 at Turf Moor in August.
Burnley are without a win in nine League games but Ferguson knows this week's appointment of Brian Laws to replace Owen Coyle as manager could produce a positive reaction from their players.
He said: 'That can happen although there is no rhyme or reason to it. But we have our own agenda and winning this weekend is high up on it.'
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