The thin smile with which Sven Goran Eriksson greets any mention of Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to be almost indecipherable this week after he was forced to omit Paul Scholes from the England squad for forthcoming European Championship qualifiers against Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
Scholes, said Ferguson, might need a hernia operation. "Might". While England are in the Balkans and playing down the road at Old Trafford Scholes will be at home, resting, or at United's Carrington HQ receiving treatment. He may even bump into Eriksson when England train.
It is a major blow to Eriksson, who said after Scholes was criticised following England's last match: "I would be very surprised if I ever dropped him. I've never had a problem with Paul Scholes. I know he can play better than today but it's a friendly and he's Paul Scholes, he's very important."
It could get worse. Ferguson added that Scholes had already had two hernia operations and, as a third one would require a longer lay-off, United were hoping to solve the problem with rest. If this failed, he would need an operation. This, it can be guaranteed, would be so timed as to rule Scholes out of the critical trip to Istanbul to play Turkey in October.
The row follows a dispute last season when Scholes was pulled out of the England squad to play Portugal and then included in a Manchester United side for a Premiership match the following night. Eriksson only found out when he arrived at Old Trafford and was handed a team-sheet. There have also been problems between the two managers in the wake of Ferguson's claim that Eriksson was offered the United job when it seemed he would be retiring, which was accompanied by disparaging remarks about the Swede. Their differing recent treatment of David Beckham has further exacerbated the distance between these football men.
Yet before Ferguson is reviled as a selfish anti-English curmudgeon, it should be noted he has allowed Eriksson to include Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand, all of whom have recently had injuries or ailments, and Phil Neville. Butt has not started a game since being injured playing for England last month. Ferdinand missed United's game yesterday with a kidney complaint and will need to pass a midweek fitness test to be available for England. In addition it is United who pay Ferguson's and Scholes' wages. Scholes, moreover, has only previously missed two matches under Eriksson, the Portugal game and another friendly against Italy. No other player has figured in his teams as regularly.
The midfielder's absence from the matches against Macedonia in Skopje on Saturday and Liechtenstein at Old Trafford four days later is likely to mean an opportunity for either Frank Lampard or Kieron Dyer. Lampard has had a series of improving performances for England despite being played out of position and is holding down a place in the new Chelsea side. Dyer looked sharp when coming on to play an attacking role against Croatia and is a favourite of Eriksson's . He may, though, lack the positional discipline of Lampard. They could both play if Nicky Butt's injury fails to heal.
Eriksson will be pleased to have Gary Neville, Sol Campbell and Wayne Rooney back after injury but has accepted he must do without Darius Vassell and Jonathan Woodgate. Gary Neville and Campbell will go straight back into a defence which missed both in recent matches. Rooney may displace Emile Heskey, especially as the latter is carrying an ankle injury.
There was further good news for Eriksson in Michael Owen's two goals at the weekend and an agreement with Real Madrid over Beckham's participation in their La Liga match against Villarreal on Tuesday. Madrid, for whom Beckham scored on his league debut on Saturday, have hired a private plane to fly Beckham to Manchester after the match. England will prepare there before flying to Macedonia on Thursday.
There was less good news for Gareth Southgate and David Seaman who were again omitted. It is the first time Southgate has been left out of the squad for a competitive fixture since the beginning of Eriksson's reign in early 2001. Even with Woodgate unavailable Eriksson has preferred to select only three specialist centre-halves, and Danny Mills as back-up, than recall Southgate.
Seaman, meanwhile, had hoped his success in gaining a regular Premiership place with Manchester City would enable him to win a recall for the England team. It seems that, as his 40th birthday approaches, his international retirement has been decided for him.
One other change in the squad sees the recall of Ian Walker as back-up goalkeeper. This allows Chris Kirkland, who is not playing for Liverpool at present, to gain match experience with the Under-21s.
Probable England XI (v Macedonia, Saturday): James; G Neville, Campbell, Ferdinand, Cole; Beckham, Butt, Gerrard, Lampard or Dyer; Owen, Rooney or Heskey.
(for Euro 2004 qualifiers v Macedonia, away Saturday, and Liechtenstein, Old Trafford, 10 September)
James (West Ham), Robinson (Leeds United), Walker (Leicester).
P Neville (Manchester United), G Neville (Manchester United), Cole (Arsenal), Bridge (Chelsea), Mills (Middlesbrough), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Campbell (Arsenal), Terry (Chelsea).
Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), J Cole (Chelsea), Hargreaves (Bayern Munich, Ger), Butt (Manchester United), Dyer (Newcastle United), Murphy (Liverpool), Gerrard (Liverpool), Sinclair (Manchester City).
Owen (Liverpool), Heskey (Liverpool), Beattie (Southampton), Rooney (Everton).