Everywhere you look, Manchester United loom large over the World Cup qualifying match between England and Wales on Saturday. David Beckham eagerly awaits his return to Old Trafford, where the game will be played. England are preparing at Carrington, United's training ground. The home team's hopes will be lifted by the return of two local heroes, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. Mark Hughes, an Old Trafford legend, manages the Wales team, while a more recent old boy, Nicky Butt, hopes to win back his England place.
On the pitch, the only United player flying the Welsh flag will be Ryan Giggs, who will have familiar faces attempting to block his progress down the left wing in Beckham and Gary Neville. The three men have played hundreds of games alongside each other in the red of United, but this is the first time they find themselves in competitive senior opposition. For Neville in particular, as England's right back, it will be a chance to experience at first hand the challenge of combating the skills of a club colleague who has rampaged through defences across Europe for more than a decade.
So how will Neville handle the task? "You just have to be on the absolute top of your game," he said. "You hope for one thing that you'll have a lot of the ball, which means that he'll be in a defensive position. You hope the service will be cut off to him. But obviously there will be occasions when he gets the ball and you have to defend in the best way you know how and the way that you've defended in the previous years that you've played football. You have to stay on your feet and don't dive in at him.
"He's a fantastic player, one of the best that Manchester United have had, and he seems to have been going on for ever. To go with that he has fantastic ability, a fantastic mentality and a work ethic that he shows year in, year out. I think that's unusual in wingers. It's what makes him a great player." With 70 caps and more than 10 seasons as a United regular, Neville knows a thing or two about how to handle flying wingers. He admits, however, that he has had trouble coping with opponents who - like Giggs - do more than just hug the flank.
"The most difficult opponent I've faced on the wing was probably [Alessandro] Del Piero when he played towards the left side for Juventus," Neville said. "I could never seem to get near him because he'd always drag you somewhere else. He never played in that wing position. Zidane, at times, did the same for Real Madrid in the Champions' League quarter-finals a couple of years ago.
"That sort of player is very difficult to pick up. When you're playing against an out-and-out winger you know what your job is. It's more straightforward. Having played against Ryan in training, he does mix the two very well. He drifts in and out. And it will obviously be a very different proposition playing against him in a match."
Neville regards the match against Scotland in Euro '96 as his most memorable for England and is expecting an afternoon of similar flavour on Saturday. "The feeling in that game, the emotion and the passion from the fans was something that I'd not experienced before. I've experienced it very occasionally since, but never like it was then. I've always said from that day onwards that these home nation games are fantastic and I'd love to play in them more often."
Not that Neville intends to get carried away with the emotion of the day. While he expects English fervour to match that of the Welsh - "I would be very disappointed if we don't compete with them and show the same levels of passion" - he believes that the team which best keeps its head will come out on top.
"It's not about emotion or passion. It's about professionalism. If you're professional, you give your all and you do your job. If you're too emotional going into the match you're not going to be able to perform at your best. But then again the same is true if you're too relaxed. We have quite a lot of experienced players and we have to use that experience on Saturday. Whatever happens out there you have to be prepared for it. There are things that happen in these sort of matches - derby matches at club level, big matches between United, Arsenal and Liverpool. These matches always throw up things that are unusual because of what's at stake. You just have to remain focused on your job."
Neville believes England's cause will be greatly helped by the return of Rio Ferdinand after his eight-month suspension for missing a drugs test. Ferdinand has already settled back into the United defence as if he had never been away and Neville is full of admiration.
"I never expected that anybody could show the professionalism that he showed over that eight months," Neville said. "He came in every day. He did everything right. He trained as if he was going to play on Saturday. And he gained a lot of respect for that. If you take away a Saturday game from a footballer you're taking away their life. If he hadn't been focused and shown that professionalism you wouldn't have seen him slot back in in the way that he has.
"He's one of the best central defenders in the world. He has absolutely all the qualities you'd look for in a defender - good on the ball, strong, quick, good in the air. His composure spreads throughout the team. Roy Keane always says that in the first five minutes of a match all it needs is for a defender to miscue a clearance and the opposing crowd can get up and you'll sense a bit of panic. You just don't see that with Rio. He'll bring the ball down and pass it out."
Neville has been similarly impressed by the return of another colleague, Wayne Rooney, who celebrated his first game after breaking a bone in his foot playing for England during Euro 2004 in Portugal by scoring a hat-trick on his club debut.
"He'd been out for three months," Neville said. "I'd had a similar injury and it was difficult for me when I first came back. He didn't seem to find it difficult at all. He had a fantastic match and with that performance he catapulted himself straight back into England contention. Everyone wants to watch him play football. That's why United have gone for him and couldn't afford to let him go anywhere else."Reuse content