Still swallowing the hurt from Manchester United's elimination by Bayern Munich, Sir Alex Ferguson was asked if he had considered employing Owen Hargreaves against his former club. The manager appeared momentarily lost. "Who?" he replied before explaining with the patience of an exasperated schoolmaster that Hargreaves had not been included in the club's Champions League squad when it was announced more than two months ago.
It is increasingly likely that, however keen England might be to take perhaps their most versatile midfielder to South Africa, their single outstanding player of the last World Cup will take no part in this one.
A bout of tendonitis that the world's most famous sports surgeon, Richard Steadman, said was the worst he had come across in 35 years means Hargreaves has not played competitively for his country in nearly two years. Unless he plays some part in the remains of Manchester United's league campaign, Capello will not even consider Hargreaves for his provisional World Cup squad he is due to name on 17 May. With just two friendlies before England travel to their base camp near Rustenburg, there is little room for experiment and Ferguson's words were not encouraging.
"It is difficult to say when Owen will be back; he is training well and I had him in the squad for the Chelsea game," he said. "His training performances have been fine but I think at the moment midfield is not an issue for us because we have plenty of alternatives."
England may have fewer options and Hargreaves has just a couple of reserve-team games to his credit. When he was recovering from a broken leg at Bayern, Hargreaves let out his frustration by jumping in his Porsche and driving almost non-stop from Munich to Barcelona. There have been fewer such outlets this time around. After his first taste of reserve-team football at Altrincham, he sanguinely described his time in Manchester as "disappointing" and that "in a perfect world I would like to play a part in the World Cup".
It is unlikely to be a perfect world and at 29 Hargreaves is in danger of being overtaken by a crop of younger midfielders at Old Trafford. The need for goals from midfield is acute. Between them, United's 10 midfielders have scored 20 times and it was a miss at Blackburn by the most successful, Antonio Valencia – who has found the net five times but not at all since December – which Ferguson saw as the pivotal moment of a match that might damn the club's Premier League aspirations.
Curiously, the unit has been more prolific in the Champions League where all three of the goals United scored against Bayern in an extraordinary first half came in the contrasting shapes of Darron Gibson and Nani.
And it is for this reason that the 22-year-old from Londonderry is so prized by Ferguson. "You saw Gibson's performance against Bayern Munich," he said. "That was his sixth goal of the season [in all competitions] and you cannot dismiss that. It is the kind of contribution we used to get from Paul Scholes. He used to get me 12 to 14 goals from midfield all the time and we haven't had a player like that in a while." In fact, the last time Scholes reached double figures was in 2004-05.
"Who is to say if Gibson had been playing all the time where he would be in terms of goals?" Ferguson added. "But he is getting recognition now and even the players are commenting on how much he has improved."
Whatever their success in chasing a fourth successive title, a feat that Rio Ferdinand said would confirm this Manchester United side as the best English football has ever produced, it is clear that there will be a changing of the guard at Old Trafford come the summer. Whether through instinct – "developing young players is what we are good at" he said recently – or the circumstances of the Glazer regime, Ferguson's attention seems increasingly taken by younger players, especially in the shape of his newest signings, Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling.
On Friday he talked with real enthusiasm about how the teenage Federico Macheda had scored against Chelsea, moving from one side of the box to the other and finding the net through pure instinct. It was not the voice of a man preparing to ride away into the sunset like John Wayne, one of his favourite actors. About Dimitar Berbatov, who might be the last £30m signing he ever makes, Ferguson was more reticent.
Ferdinand has warned Manchester City that they will always be under pressure until they start winning trophies. The England captain, who is still a doubt for Saturday's encounter at Eastlands, although Ryan Giggs expects to recover from a hamstring injury in time, said: "They have got the capacity to be genuine title contenders because they have got so much money and they are targeting the big players. But the first trophy is always the hardest one to win and, until they do that, there will be a lot of pressure on them.
"They reached the Carling Cup semi-final this season but came up against us and they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Stoke, so there is still a bit of work to do. I think that, if they finish in a Champions League spot this season, for them that will feel as good as winning a trophy."
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