Fabio Capello now regards the 35-year-old Gary Neville as his third-choice right-back and, fitness permitting, will take him to South Africa in June if either Glen Johnson or Wes Brown are injured.
It is a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of Neville who has impressed Capello all season and put in a performance on Wednesday night against Milan which showed he could still live with the very best. Most crucially, the Capello camp regard Neville as ahead of Micah Richards, 14 years his junior, in the pecking order should Johnson or Brown not be fit this summer.
Brown broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot against Wolves on Saturday and will be a close call to prove his fitness in time for the final squad announcement on 1 June. Johnson played against Wigan for Liverpool on Monday night, his first game since the end of December when he developed a medial knee ligament problem.
Capello's staff see Neville, who won the last of his 85 caps against Spain three years ago, as a better fit for the role of right-back than Richards who has never been capped under the Italian. It is some comeback for Neville who missed almost the entire 2007-08 season, in which United won the Champions League and Premier League, through injury.
Neville, who played at Euro '96, was selected for the England squad that played against Kazakhstan and Andorra at the end of last season but did not feature in either match. He said after the game on Wednesday that he had not given up on playing at the World Cup. "I just play for United," said Neville, who set up Wayne Rooney's opening goal on Wednesday. "I play for United and try to play well and where that takes me then who knows? But I'm not focusing on that. I'm trying to win as many games with United. We've got a lot to look forward to in these next couple of months."
Rooney has reiterated his determination to play for England at every opportunity, despite the frustration expressed by Sir Alex Ferguson about the kneecap injury he exacerbated playing for Capello's side against Egypt last week. Rooney has not been afraid to assert his position in the face of his manager's opinions – it was he who insisted, presciently as it has turned out, that he would be better deployed through the middle – and Ferguson's frustrations about England appear to have fallen on deaf ears in a World Cup year. "I'm proud to play for my country and I want to play for them unless I really can't," Rooney said.
His smile when Ferguson's criticism of his England workload was put to him in the aftermath of the 4-0 win over Milan was a mischievous one and it was clear from his demeanour that he is not seeking to make a direct challenge to his manager.
United's players were careful not to give any sense of pleasure at Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo's exit from the Champions League, though Rooney was the one who acknowledged that Lyons had potentially made United's life much easier in the tournament. "That's got rid of one hurdle because you know if you got to the final and faced them in their own stadium it would always be difficult," he said.
Rooney, who appeared in London alongside the World Cup trophy yesterday, added that fatherhood had changed his attitude on the pitch and that his son Kai was going to grow up an Everton fan like his father. "I have changed a lot over the last couple of years. Becoming a father, you have to be a role model. He [Kai] has been to a few games. The important one was when he came to watch me against Everton, the two teams I have played for. And the team who he supports as well."Reuse content