Alex Ferguson insists Owen Hargreaves will eventually return to action even though he has been forced to leave the £18m midfielder out of Manchester United’s Champions League squad.
Hargreaves has not played for United since September 2008, when he finally decided to undergo revolutionary knee surgery in America to try to cure a chronic tendinitis problem that dates back to his time at Bayern Munich.
The 29-year-old eventually returned to United’s Carrington training base 12 months later after undergoing an extensive rehabilitation programme under the guidance of world renowned knee specialist Dr Richard Steadman.
At the time, it was thought Hargreaves would be back in action by November to help United’s quest for honours and push for a place in Fabio Capello’s England World Cup squad.
But that deadline was missed and so have others Ferguson subsequently put in place.
Knowing there was no chance of Hargreaves being fit for the Champions League knock-out round clash with AC Milan later this month, Ferguson opted to leave the player out of his 25-man squad, which had to be submitted to UEFA by the end of last month.
Yet Ferguson insists the bad news need not necessarily prove terminal and that Hargreaves could still play a major role this season.
“Owen’s recovery is slow,” admitted Ferguson. “It is a year and a half now and I can’t put a time on it. But he will be back. He could come back and make an impact on the league for us. Hopefully he does.
“There are more games in the league than there are in the European Cup and I don’t need to register him for the league.”
Given what has happened over the past 18 months, it seems wildly optimistic to be talking of Hargreaves in the context of a Champions League final.
But Ferguson was gambling against the more immediate priority of a duel with old boy David Beckham in the San Siro on February 16 when he eventually decided young defender Ritchie de Laet was the wisest choice among the players who will now shape United’s European destiny.
“It would be nice to think we could get to the European Cup final and have Owen Hargreaves available,” said Ferguson.
“But we are not there. We have AC Milan in 10 days’ time and we need to win that game.
“If I was choosing Owen I would have had to leave another important player out because he will not be available for the AC Milan game. That important player might be the one I need. I had to choose and it was a hard decision. But it is the correct decision.”