Rio Ferdinand faces the axe from Fabio Capello's England squad for the friendly against Brazil next week if he does not prove his fitness by playing at Chelsea in Manchester United's top-of-the-table match on Sunday.
Capello and his assistants are concerned primarily about Ferdinand's condition – he missed facing Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and CSKA Moscow on Tuesday. If Sir Alex Ferguson does not consider him fit enough to play at Stamford Bridge on Sunday – the day the squad is announced – it will be difficult for Capello to involve him in the game a week on Saturday.
The doubts over the central defender come after his team-mate Wes Brown admitted that Ferdinand was still struggling with the back problems that plagued him last year. Ferdinand and Ferguson have both claimed the player's problem is a calf injury Ferdinand picked up before England's last two World Cup qualifiers, against Ukraine and Belarus, but that his back was no longer an issue.
Brown suggested otherwise. "Rio has been injured for a very long time and he's been getting a lot of pain in his back for a long time," he said. "I'm not sure how many months it's been going on but he's come to the stage where he's sorting it out now."
While Ferguson said on Monday that he blamed himself for allowing Ferdinand to play with calf trouble, Brown claimed it was his back complaint that was not being tackled. "If you are not fully fit and you try and play it's very hard," he said. "And, if you carry on playing with that same injury, week in, week out, it does make things even harder." Ferdinand had now "decided to sort it out",Brown added.
Ferdinand has been responsible for a handful of high-profile errors this season that have tarnished his reputation as one of England's most gifted defenders. Capello's vice-captain, 31 on Saturday, has not played for United since the Liverpool game on 25 October. His mistake in the World Cup qualifier in Ukraine, which led to a penalty being awarded against England, prompted more questions as to whether his best days are behind him, although the competition for his place alongside John Terry in the centre of England's defence is extremely weak. Matthew Upson is the next best bet and he plays for lowly-placed West Ham.
Darren Fletcher has revealed he needs an ankle operation, although he is prepared to delay surgery until the summer. Tuesday's 3-3 draw with CSKA Moscow was the 25-year-old's first match for exactly a month. He had injured his ankle in the draw at Old Trafford against Sunderland.
"A bit of bone has broken off the back of my ankle and stuck out about an inch," he said. "It got to the point when it was too sore to train and play so I had an injection to clear it up for a while but eventually it is going to need to be cleaned out. I will have to get something done but the injection will see me through a few months. The plan is to get me through to the summer and do something then."