James Milner appears to have won his battle to be fit for England's opening fixture against the United States this evening and is likely to feature on the left side of a four-man midfield here, with Steven Gerrard resuming his central partnership with Frank Lampard.
Milner's stomach bug, picked up from Matthew Upson, left him feeling wretched on Tuesday, prevented him training on either Wednesday or Thursday and, only 48 hours ago, had left him 60/40 against (in the battle with Joe Cole) for a position on England's left flank. But the 24-year-old spoke with Fabio Capello on Thursday night, when the Aston Villa player told the coach he was ready for the World Cup opener. "He's fit, no problem. I spoke with him last night and he said he was ok. He was ill for one day and [didn't train for two]," Capello said.
Capello finally quashed any remaining prospect of Gareth Barry being able to line up for England's opening game, though he, too, looked mobile in training and will be on the bench – an outcome broadly in line with England's expectations when Capello first gambled on including him in his 30-man squad. "Barry is training three days, every day, normally," Capello said. "[He is] training hard. He's fit. He will be on the bench, not sure in the first XI." Barry looks like a possible starter in the second group game against Algeria in Cape Town on Friday.
Milner showed no signs of any fatigue during the 20-minute training session here last night, looking sharp as he brought one fine save from Robert Green during what Capello later described as the best session he had seen from his players in South Africa.
Milner's readiness seems to mean there is no place in the starting XI for Michael Carrick, though the Manchester United player is understood to have been central to Capello's thinking this week. Rather than starting with Joe Cole in Milner's absence, the combination Capello was mulling over revolved around a central midfield partnership of Carrick and Lampard, releasing Gerrard from the role down the England left, with which he has become familiar under Capello. The Italian is notorious for changing his mind at the last minute, though, and a role for Carrick cannot be entirely discounted.
Capello had Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey partnered in a brief, half-pitch training match last night, and Heskey, rather than Peter Crouch, appears to remain Capello's preferred option to operate with Rooney. Ledley King and John Terry were central defensive partners for the training match, in which King played a full part.
Though Capello reiterated last night that he knows his starting XI, goalkeepers Joe Hart and Green must wait until 5pm GMT today – two hours before kick-off – before they learn whether the manager has opted for Green's greater experience or has been won over by Hart's sharpness in training in South Africa. Though Hart certainly showed more evidence of his growing confidence last night, Green's experience may well prevail.
Capello dismissed suggestions that Rooney's temperament might be suspect going into the tournament, though he admitted he had spoken to the Manchester United striker about falling foul of the controversial Brazilian referee Carlos Simon today. "Rooney played in qualification, all the games, and had no problems with the referee. I hope it will be the same Rooney in the World Cup. I spoke with him.
"His aggression... is really strong [and] we have to be careful. We have to respect the referees. But he's spontaneous, not uneducated. He's instinctive and when he goes out onto the pitch he goes out to win. He's someone who gets angry when he's treated to something unfair. But he'll be fine for the World Cup."