Fabio Capello has not ruled out Manchester United's Owen Hargreaves from his World Cup plans and is now accepting that he might have to resort to playing a utility player in the right-back berth if Wes Brown, Hargreaves' United team-mate, does not recover from a suspected broken foot to make it to South Africa.
Hargreaves' hopes of making it on to the flight to the tournament had seemed doomed amid his continued struggles with tendinitis but the 29-year-old, who has been out for 18 months, is due to play for United reserves in the derby game with Manchester City at Altrincham on Thursday and Capello is prepared to consider him if he can stay fit and reach the same level he was at 18 months ago in the next eight weeks.
Brown is by no means out of the World Cup, as far as Capello is concerned. United's initial briefing to England puts his likely period of absence at five to six weeks, which means he could be playing by late April and have perhaps three league games to demonstrate he is fit for the finals. The 30-year-old underwent a scan yesterday on his foot with the suspicion being that he has broken the fifth metatarsal in a challenge with Wolves' Matt Jarvis during United's 1-0 victory at Molineux on Saturday. Sir Alex Ferguson is expected to disclose the results of the scan when he appears at Old Trafford this afternoon at a press conference ahead of United's Champions League last-16 second-leg match with Milan at Old Trafford tomorrow.
Despite the prospects of Brown just about making it to full fitness in time and of the return to the Liverpool side of Glen Johnson – Capello's first-choice right-back, who played the final 35 minutes of last night's Premier League match at Wigan as a substitute – Capello is considering the other options available to him. Manchester City's Micah Richards does not appear to be in contention and it also appears highly unlikely that the England coach will turn to 35-year-old Gary Neville, the former national captain, as back-up, despite having named him in the squad for last June's qualifier with Andorra.
Rather than calling up a specialist right-back, Capello seems ready to use the versatility elsewhere in the squad if he finds himself in need. James Milner has occasionally started at right-back for Martin O'Neill at Aston Villa and was named as a defender on Capello's squad to face Egypt last month, though he has made no secret of his preference for a midfield spot.
Hargreaves is a far more accomplished right-back. He appeared regularly in that position for United – including the 2007-08 Champions League semi-final with Barcelona – shortly before injury curtailed his career at United and was also a regular international right-back for Sven Goran Eriksson. Generally used as a central midfielder in his successful 2006 World Cup tournament, he was deployed at right-back by Eriksson in England's 1-0 win over Ecuador in the first knockout stage of the tournament, which they won 1-0. He reverted back to central midfield for the quarter-final with Portugal in Gelsenkirchen which saw Eriksson's side eliminated seven days later.
Though Hargreaves' mind will be willing, it is a case of whether his body will be up to it where the World Cup is concerned. The player recently reflected on the deep psychological challenges of 18 months out. "As an athlete you think you are invincible," Hargreaves said. "You don't think something of this magnitude will happen. I obviously had the problem when I came to Manchester United from Germany in 2007 and we tried to manage it. Part of the problem for me was my competitiveness. I was new to United and they had spent a lot of time, energy and money in getting me from Bayern Munich."
Capello already faces the challenge of deciding who might deputise at left-back, with Chelsea's Ashley Cole out for the season. Rio Ferdinand, however, has said he came through Saturday's match at Wolves "niggle-free" having recovered from the back trouble which ruled him out of England's match with Egypt last week.