Gabriel Agbonlahor has received a welcome vote of confidence from Fabio Capello by being promoted ahead of proven England goalscorer Michael Owen for World Cup qualifying duty tonight.
Capello responded to a deepening striker crisis within the Three Lions squad by calling up the Aston Villa forward for this evening’s Group Six fixture with Ukraine at Wembley.
Agbonlahor was deemed fit enough by Villa’s medical staff to join up with England yesterday evening having withdrawn from the Under-21s last week with a hamstring strain.
Villa club-mate Emile Heskey pulled out of Capello’s squad with his own hamstring problem on Sunday after limping out of Saturday’s 4-0 friendly victory over Slovakia at Wembley.
With West Ham United’s Carlton Cole also injured on Saturday, Darren Bent was selected as a late addition, only for the Tottenham Hotspur striker to fall victim to the injury curse at training yesterday morning.
Capello was left in dire need of attacking reinforcements and, after ruling out a recall for Owen as early as Saturday evening, the England head coach contacted Villa to draft in Agbonlahor.
Agbonlahor’s poor club form and a scoring drought has recently prompted criticism from Villa supporters and manager Martin O’Neill admitted the player’s confidence was low.
However, the surprise call up is a timely tonic for the Birmingham-born striker who was left out of the Three Lions squad for Slovakia despite starting the previous two friendlies in Germany and Spain.
“We decided to choose Agbonlahor for the next game,” said Capello.
“I spoke with the manager of Aston Villa and he has been training the last two or three days very well. He is OK now.”
Capello refused to rule out selecting Owen for future internationals and explained the injury-prone Newcastle United striker was overlooked in favour of Agbonlahor because of his lack of match fitness.
“In every interview I said the door, for all the players, is open,” said Capello.
“I chose Agbonlahor because he has played a lot of games. I respect Owen but I am focused on the game of football.”
Agbonlahor is likely to be among the substitutes tonight after his late selection prevented him from training with England at their London Colney base.
Instead, Capello is likely to turn to former Villa striker Peter Crouch to lead the attack with Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard continuing their productive partnership just behind him.
“I am sure Crouch is the best forward I can put into the first XI,” said Capello. “All the players have a lot of confidence and play without fear. Now they are playing with the same confidence they have for their clubs.”
England have won their first four qualifiers and a victory over Ukraine would keep them at the top of Group Six.
Rio Ferdinand is expected to return to England’s defence alongside John Terry after recovering from a persistent back problem to take part in training yesterday.
Meanwhile, Gareth Barry’s status as an established England favourite has been confirmed by a supporters’ poll which puts him second behind Rooney as the Three Lions’ best player of 2008.
The Villa midfielder, who played all of the nation’s ten games last year as part of a run of 19 consecutive games, received 19.1 per cent of the votes on the www.thefa.com website.