Ronaldo back for Portugal, Owen shut out by England

Cristiano Ronaldo returns after injury for Portugal, Adriano is recalled from the cold for Brazil and Michael Owen is still shut out by England coach Fabio Capello.

World Cup qualifying returns on Saturday and, with it, comes the welcome sight of the big stars back in national team colours and, for some, the heartache of wondering whether their international career is over.

Qualifying for the 2010 Cup in South Africa picks up speed with two rounds in Europe and South America, and also matches in Africa, Asia and the North and Central America region.

The games give some teams, European champion Spain and England, for example, a great chance to pull away from their rivals, while surprise South American leaders Paraguay are confident of staying four points ahead of Brazil and Argentina.

After winning Euro 2008 to end 44 years without a title, Spain still look strong and have a maximum six points in European Group Five and already have a two-point advantage over Turkey and Belgium.

The Spaniards are also on a run of 25 games unbeaten and hope to continue that with victories at Estonia and Belgium. Coach Vicente del Bosque, the hugely successful former Real Madrid manager who took over from Luis Aragones after Spain’s European triumph in Austria in June, has stuck with most of that squad and declined to call up 18-year-old rising FC Barcelona star Bojan Krkic.

England weren’t there when Spain won Euro 2008 because they failed to qualify. Capello has revived their hopes of getting to the World Cup, however, surviving a shaky spell of friendlies to win 4-1 at Croatia—the team that stopped them reaching the Euros.

“I hope we have finally knocked the monkey off our back,” Capello said in reference to fears that England would continue to struggle.

“Victory was important, because we had lost the English spirit, our aggressiveness, the boldness, our confidence.
After failing to qualify for the European Championship we were full of fear, notably when we played at Wembley. I knew we would play better abroad and we did.”

England return to Wembley on Saturday fully confident they will beat Kazakhstan, and then move on to Belarus to make it 12 points from four games. England have never played either nation before, but Owen won’t be there to mark those two minor milestones because Capello hasn’t selected him.

The former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker has scored four times for struggling Newcastle, but even that hasn’t convinced the Italian coach that he was worthy of a place, despite his 40 goals in 89 England appearances dating back a decade.

Other leading contenders
Alessandro Del Piero is another veteran who is scoring for his club, Juventus, but he has been overlooked by national coach Marcello Lippi for qualifying matches against Bulgaria and Montenegro.

Injured and unavailable were goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Mauro Camoranesi, Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Grosso and Marco Materazzi.

The coach, who led the Italians to their World Cup triumph in Berlin two years, ago has called up a newcomer, Giuseppe Rossi, whose 11 goals helped Villarreal finish second in the Spanish league last season.

“He’s ready. I would have called him up before,” Lippi said. “He’s 21 but he has a lot of maturity and international experience.”

Having conceded two late goals in a 3-2 loss at home to Denmark, Portugal hope the return of Ronaldo will lift the team from fourth place in Group One by beating Sweden and surprise group leaders Albania.

The winger, whose 42 goals helped Manchester United win the English Premier and Champions Leagues last season, appears to have overcome the acrimony he faced by saying he wanted to leave for Real Madrid and is back to form after three months out with an ankle injury.

Of the other leading contenders, Germany top their group but need to emphatically beat nearest rivals Russia and Wales to restore confidence that they can win the title for the fourth time, and France—fourth in Group Seven—hope a victory at fifth-place Romania will revive their hopes of getting to South Africa.

Away from Europe, Brazil are trying to climb out of a slump and coach Dunga is under fire for winning only three of their first eight qualifying games and failing to get the best out of his hugely talented squad.

With Luis Fabiano injured, Dunga has recalled Adriano, the powerfully built striker whose form drained so badly that he spent several months back home with São Paulo regaining it. He missed the last two qualifiers but, back with Inter Milan, is returning to his best.

Second-placed Brazil face Venezuela and Colombia and, although the top four teams in the 10-strong qualifying group are sure to make it to the World Cup, Brazil are four points behind Paraguay. Argentina, level on points with Brazil in third place and also out of form, host Uruguay and then visit Chile.—Sapa-AP

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