The rehabilitation of Phil Neville neared completion last night when Sven Goran Eriksson handed the Manchester United all-rounder the holding role in tonight's friendly against Serbia & Montenegro in Leicester. Wayne Rooney will be left on the bench and Matthew Upson given a first start.
The decision to field the younger Neville brother in such a key role will stun those England fans who remember his disappointing performances at left-back, which culminated in the error against Romania which cost England a place in the quarter-finals of the European Championships in 2000.
The criticism Neville received would have broken lesser characters but, like his club team-mate David Beckham, he has emerged stronger, though with a markedly lower profile. This season he has re-invented himself as a midfielder, catching Eriksson's eye when he eclipsed Patrick Vieira in United's defeat of Arsenal at Old Trafford.
But it was not until the recent trip to South Africa that he was recalled to the international squad. Making his first start in nearly two years, he was competent at left-back but impressive when switched to central midfield.
Neville will need, though, to play well to prevent Owen Hargreaves replacing him for next week's Euro 2004 qualifying tie against Slovakia and, probably, at some stage tonight. The Bayern Munich player would probably have started had he not been suffering the effects of his role in the club's German cup final win at the weekend.
The change is among seven, one of them positional, from the team which beat Turkey in April. The entire back four has been altered; only Michael Owen and Paul Scholes of the outfielders fill the same roles.
Eriksson will be looking for signs of an understanding between the largely untried centre-half pairing of Upson and Gareth Southgate, and the new midfield diamond combination. As well as Neville as anchor, Steven Gerrard will be the injured Beckham's understudy on the right, Frank Lampard on the left and Scholes in the hole. Wayne Rooney is likely to be introduced at half-time while John Terry can expect a debut.
Owen said the new shape had pros and cons. "It is fantastic having Paul Scholes close to me, he always seems to be on the same wavelength, but it means you can't have two wide men so they are not stretched as much."
Owen, the stand-in captain in Beckham's absence, also added his voice to the appeals to England supporters, whose misbehaviour remains a concern even if tonight the only problem likely is booing of the opposition anthem. Uefa, the game's governing body in Europe, has warned further crowd violence could lead to England being expelled from the Euro 2004 tournament.
Owen said: "I hate the thought of us qualifying ahead of Turkey and the other teams in our group, and to not get there because of a stupid, silly thing that you can easily correct off the pitch. Events like the European Championship don't come around very often and the consequences of missing it are enormous."
Serbia & Montenegro may be a new name in European football but their heritage is a rich one, the two republics being the rump of the former Yugoslavia, which used to produce thousands of technically skilled footballers but rarely a team befitting their talents.
The nearest they came to success was was reaching the final of the European Championships (then known as the Nations' Cup) in 1960 and 1968. On the latter occasion they beat England in a bitter semi-final, during which Alan Mullery became the first player to be sent off in England colours. It was the last time they defeated England.
Since Yugoslavia broke up, Croatia have prospered most of its former republics on the football field, finishing third in the 1998 World Cup. The Yugoslav rump has been less successful and the winter name change has made little difference, as Serbia & Montenegro have since been held at home to Azerbaijan in a qualifier and have lost four friendlies. They trail Wales in Group Nine of the 2004 qualifying programme and see this fixture as preparation for qualifiers in Finland and Azerbaijan later this month. To that end they are likely to substitute most, and possibly all, of their team at half-time.
Despite the visitors' recent struggles, Dejan Savicevic, the former Milan player now coaching the team for £250 a month as a favour to his former team-mate, now FA president, Drajan Stojkovic, has quality at his disposal.
This includes Darko Kovacevic, who has helped Real Socieded top the Spanish league, Sinisa Mihajlovic, who played under Eriksson at Lazio, and Predrag Mijatovic, Real Madrid's match-winner in the 1998 European Cup final. There are two names familiar to Premiership audiences, Savo Milosevic, who has done better in Spain than at Villa Park, and Sasa Ilic. The latter is not the former Charlton goalkeeper but a Partizan Belgrade midfielder of the same name.
While Serbia & Montenegro will not lack for motivation, England ought to secure a fourth successive win for the first time since Eriksson's opening burst in early 2001.
The priority, though, is not the result but signs of fluency in unfamiliar partnerships and the avoidance of injury.Reuse content