It has been a long time out for Owen Hargreaves, the forgotten man of English football, but after 18 months of painful surgery, rehabilitation and more setbacks than he would care to remember he is on the brink of a remarkable comeback to the England World Cup finals squad.
Fabio Capello learnt yesterday that Gareth Barry will not be fit to take as part of the 30-man provisional squad that he names today so it is to Hargreaves that he must turn in the search for a holding midfielder. It is certainly a risk with the 29-year-old having played just one game since he completed 90 minutes for United in their 1-1 draw with Chelsea on 21 September 2008 and felt discomfort in his knees.
It was described by one surgeon as the worst case of tendinitis that he had ever seen in a sportsman and yet, having had his career written off on more than one occasion, it looks like Hargreaves will be back in contention today when Capello names his squad at Wembley this afternoon. He has played just two minutes against Sunderland as a substitute on 2 May but the England manager is in desperate need of a holding midfielder.
Hargreaves will not feature on the "Capello Index", the online player rating system that was launched by the England manager yesterday simply because he has not played enough recently. Four years since he staked his claim for a place in the England team with the outstanding performance against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen during the quarter-final defeat at the last World Cup, Hargreaves looks like he will have his chance again.
His recent career could not have contrasted more sharply with that of Barry who has featured in all but three of Capello's 22 matches in charge of England. But the Manchester City midfielder is proof that it does not matter how good a record a player has with injuries – he can succumb at the most unlikely time. Barry sustained the injury against Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday in the most innocuous of circumstances.
As Capello sat down for his final meeting with general manager Franco Baldini last night to finalise his squad there were still many possibilities open to him. It is hard to remember an England squad that has had so many places up for grabs so close to the deadline.
The situation with injuries is so fluid it is possible that after the Austria training camp and the friendlies against Mexico and Japan some of those players who are currently regarded as among the seven reserves in Capello's 30-man squad could have forced their way into the final 23 players.
As it stands, with the doubts over Hargreaves' fitness he would surely be behind Michael Carrick and Tom Huddlestone as the holding midfielder of choice. Should he prove his fitness in the next two weeks he could reclaim the starting place that was his by right before he succumbed to injury.
Huddlestone, capped just once against Brazil in November, has forced his way into contention with his recent performances in Tottenham's surge to fourth place in the Premier League. Like Carrick he has been bumped up the pecking order by the injury to Barry but he too will have to prove himself over the next two friendlies.
At centre-back the situation is changeable to say the very least. Ledley King is in the squad and available for the first time during Capello's reign. "I am really happy because he played four games in 15 days," said Capello yesterday indicating that the Spurs captain has now fulfilled his criteria to play tournament football, which will require him to play three games in 11 days during the group stages.
But should King and his fellow central defender Rio Ferdinand fail to prove their fitness over the next two weeks then Capello will have to re-think. He and Baldini have both managed to convince Jamie Carragher that he will play a more central role in the team in order to bring the defender out of retirement. That leaves Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka as the potential reserves.
Among those players who will have no fears about their place among the 30-man squad, Capello had a word for Steven Gerrard whose miserable season with Liverpool ended with him having to shove his way through a Hull City pitch invasion on Sunday afternoon. "Some players are really important to the manager and I know Steven very well," Capello said.
"I am sure Steven will be one of our most important players at the World Cup. He knows everything that is expected of him during the games. When you start out as manager of a team and try to create one style on the pitch and the spirit of the group, these kind of players are really important."
The chief concern for Gerrard is whether he will go into another major international tournament worried that his club future lies away from Anfield. For Hargreaves it is whether his body will hold up and that goes for many more of Capello's walking wounded.
ENGLAND'S LIKELY STARTING XI
David James The veteran goalkeeper, who is 40 in August, is still clinging on to the No 1 spot. Joe Hart and Robert Green snapping at his heels though.
Glen Johnson Still major doubts about him defensively, but one of the best going forward. No other specialist right-back now Gary Neville is off the scene.
John Terry The survivor. The former England captain has been in a mess of his own making this season but he has finished on a high.
Rio Ferdinand Fears he may not go to South Africa at all. The new captain's back problems are one of Capello's biggest concerns.
Ashley Cole The undisputed king at left-back. Broke an ankle in February but back on top form, as his display against Wigan showed.
Michael Carrick The injury to Gareth Barry means that the United man is catapulted back into the holding midfield role.
Aaron Lennon Has never played under Capello but will start if fit and on form. Has played only four times since the turn of the year – a worry.
Steven Gerrard Fit and available, but is he happy? The Liverpool captain has to decide whether he sticks with his club this summer. Could it affect his World Cup?
Frank Lampard No worries about Mr Dependable. Another fine season for Chelsea but will he have to be more defensively-minded if Barry is ruled out?
Emile Heskey The invisible man has started just one of Aston Villa's last eight games. His form is nothing like that of Peter Crouch, but Capello is loyal to him.
Wayne Rooney England's jewel in the crown. He has reached the end of the season in one piece, if not completely unscathed. Groin problem remains a worryl
LEADING CANDIDATES TO MAKE THE FINAL SQUAD OF 23
Robert Green Has started more England games than any goalkeeper this season and will run James close for the No 1 spot.
Joe Hart The third goalkeeper in terms of international experience but his form for Birmingham City has been good.
Jamie Carragher Back after two years, his chance of playing depends on fitness of Ferdinand and King. May play at right-back.
Matthew Upson An old favourite of Capello but has slipped down the pecking order. Fifth choice centre-back if all are fit.
Leighton Baines The new second-choice left-back now Wayne Bridge has retired. Will be in the spotlight if Ashley Cole is injured.
Theo Walcott Will vie with Lennon for the right-wing spot, as Lennon tries to prove his fitness.
Tom Huddlestone A late run into the squad on the back of Barry's injury and good form for Spurs.
James Milner Could even be in contention for a starting place if Capello does not fancy Carrick.
Adam Johnson The wildcard for the squad but performances have made him impossible to ignore.
Peter Crouch Excellent international goalscoring record but Heskey is probably still ahead.
Jermain Defoe Form picked up towards the end of the season. Has been a reliable goalscorer for Capello.
SEVEN IN LINE FOR TODAY'S 30-MAN SQUAD
Paul Robinson Keeper drifted out of favour under Steve McClaren and has never played under Capello.
Phil Jagielka Versatile but hard to win a place among the centre-halves with such strong competition.
Michael Dawson Will feel aggrieved to miss out but playing second fiddle to Ledley King is story of his life.
Shaun Wright-Phillips Third choice right-sided player after Walcott and Lennon, only an injury will see him on plane.
Carlton Cole Capello has picked him for every squad when fit this season. Still fifth-choice striker.
Bobby Zamora Another uncapped wild card who will have to be outstanding in training for any hope.
THREE LEADING OUTSIDERS HOPING TO MAKE TODAY'S LIST
Joe Cole That substitute's performance against Wigan on the last day of the season was good but probably not good enough.
Stewart Downing Left-sided specialist but injury means he has not played for England in more than a year. Never considered a must-have.
Gabriel Agbonlahor Way down the strikers' pecking order despite another good season. Would need a lot of injuries to others to make it.Reuse content