Hargreaves still clinging to South Africa ambition

Omission from United's Champions League squad may not end World Cup hope
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The Independent Football

Despite being left out of Manchester United's Champions League squad, Owen Hargreaves remains confident he can still play for England in this summer's World Cup finals.

Given that the Champions League final is not until 22 May, the omission of the 29-year-old midfielder, who has not featured for the Premier League champions since September 2008 because of tendinitis, appears a serious blow to his international hopes. However, those who know Hargreaves pointed out yesterday that he had overcome similar problems before the last World Cup and come through them to become England's player of the tournament.

"He was injured before the 2006 World Cup and he was England's best player in Germany. That may have been because he had plenty of rest," said one source close to the player. "Owen wants very much to be part of England and it is February now and the World Cup is not until June, so there is time. But the way Owen plays, he has to be fully fit, which might be the reason that he has not been included for the Champions League."

Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to omit a man he paid Bayern Munich £17m for in the summer of 2007 would come as a blow to the Manchester United manager as well as the player. A few days ago Ferguson had talked about taking Hargreaves to Italy for the first leg of their Champions League encounter with Milan on 16 February. Hargreaves would not have played but it would have been a step forward in his rehabilitation from an injury that has seen him travel to Colorado to undergo treatment from the world-renowned surgeon Dr Richard Steadman. He was then seen by Dr Hans Müller-Wohlfahrt, his former physio at Bayern Munich.

"Owen is alternating his training between the reserve- and first-team squads, working for two days and then resting a day," Ferguson said. "It is a matter of him regaining his confidence and, when he is able to train every day, that will be the moment for him to return to match play."

Confidence is crucial for Hargreaves. Steadman told him he would only know how successful the surgery to cure his tendinitis had been once he began playing regularly again.

His displays in the 2006 World Cup suggested Hargreaves would become a fulcrum of the England midfield. His last international was against the US in May 2008 when he played alongside David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in a 2-0 victory.

In his absence, the role of midfield anchor has been taken by Gareth Barry, although given Hargreaves' versatility, he is someone the England manager, Fabio Capello, would still want available. However, unlike his predecessor, Sven Goran Eriksson, the Italian is not in the business of taking half-fit footballers to World Cups. Realistically, Hargreaves needs to make a first-team return within the next couple of months.