The sight of Wayne Rooney sprinting and kicking a ball in Manchester yesterday may have had an effect on even the natural caution of Sven Goran Eriksson. As England's boy wonder sent a message to the nation that his broken metatarsal may yet not rule him out of the World Cup finals, his manager planned a return to the 4-4-2 formation against Jamaica today.
It was 10am at Manchester United's Carrington training ground when Rooney was spotted on the pitch with the club's physiotherapist Rob Swire and a youth team player working with the ball before the England squad arrived from their city centre hotel. His secret rehabilitation sessions have, according to sources, been taking place all week but yesterday's was the first that involved the ball, and Rooney appeared to be striking it without restraint.
Although Rooney's session was hastily moved out of the sight of the media who arrived early to watch England, he continued working at another part of Carrington. His progress has caused great surprise at United, especially as it was little more than a month ago when he broke the bone against Chelsea on 29 April.
The England captain, David Beckham said yesterday that the pace of Rooney's recovery had been much more rapid than his own from a similar injury before the World Cup four years ago.
Eriksson announced to his senior midfield players that the 4-1-4-1 formation that brought success in the second half against Hungary would be put aside today in favour of the 4-4-2 system - and Peter Crouch with Michael Owen in attack - that he expects to play in England's opening World Cup match against Paraguay a week today. The Swede has told his players that today's match will be treated as extremely competitive, with most of his full-strength team playing for the full 90 minutes.
A hamstring injury has ruled out Gary Neville, who did not train yesterday, and Jamie Carragher will take his place at right-back, although the United man is expected to be back for the Paraguay match.
On Rooney, Eriksson said he was not aware of the player's progress, despite the fact that the striker will be officially handed over to the care of the England team today. The England manager said that despite the downbeat news on Monday, when Rooney's decisive scan was brought forward to 7 June in order to allow him to be replaced if necessary, the man himself was upbeat.
The Swede said that his last conversation with Rooney about his fitness had revealed just how desperate he is to make a swift return. "I said 'Wayne, when do you think you will be ready?' The answer was very easy. 'Saturday,' he said. 'Which Saturday?' I asked. 'Now!' he said. That's his spirit and it's very good."
Other than that, Eriksson was vague on what Rooney had done at United's training ground in the morning. While Steve McClaren spoke to the media about Rooney's progress, the England manager said that he was not aware of the earlier session. "What he did I don't know," Eriksson said. "I know yesterday [Thursday] he was running a lot but today [Friday] I did not speak to anybody. If that's the truth and he is ahead of schedule then I'm very happy."
There are still no plans for Rooney to be followed out to Germany on Monday by a team of United medical staff but, although he is now officially in the hands of the FA, his treatment will still be carried out by his club when he is in England.
"Physically he has not put on weight which is important for him," Eriksson said. "When the doctor says OK, he'll be more or less ready."
Beckham broke his metatarsal in March before the 2002 World Cup and said that his own recovery paled in comparison with that of Rooney. Even the speed with which Rooney had been able to discard the supportive "air boot" on his right foot had been quicker, Beckham said, than him.
"His [recovery] has gone a lot better than mine did," Beckham said. "He quickly got out of the boot he was in. I had mine on for at least two and a half weeks and he was out of his in a week. Physically he will be fine because he is so young and heals very quickly.
"But we still have to be careful with him, I'm sure we don't want him coming back too early and I'm sure United don't want that either. Going into this World Cup we need to have every player as fit as possible but it is going well for Wayne.
"All he has been doing is some running and kicking a football. I spoke to him when he did it [the injury] and spoke to him two weeks afterwards and he said it was going well. I have spoken to Gary [Neville], who has been with him nearly every day. He was working on his preparation the day after [he did the injury]"
The tournament's penalty takers have been decided, and Eriksson said any successful team could expect at least one shoot-out. Frank Lampard, Beckham, Owen and Steven Gerrard are certainties with Owen Hargreaves' German-honed marksmanship impressing in training. John Terry is also an outside bet.
The week has ended much better for Eriksson than it started. It is his final game in charge of England, in England, today. He made the point that, despite the race against time that Rooney faces to be fit, the rest of his team are fitter than they have ever been before a major tournament.
Michael Owen may not have scored since 17 December but he is, according to his manager, back to full fitness. "I think Michael has been very focused on the World Cup for a long time now," Eriksson said. "He's been afraid of being injured because he's coming from a big injury. But big games and Owen are close friends."Reuse content