Sir Alex Ferguson is ready to hand Manchester United captain Gary Neville his first ninety minutes for over eighteen months against Orlando Pirates on Tuesday after seeing the veteran defender take another huge stride back towards full fitness in Cape Town.
The former England full-back has been forced to battle back from the brink at Old Trafford after being ravaged by ankle and calf injuries since limping out of the Premier League clash with Bolton in March 2007.
Neville made just one brief substitute appearance for United last season — against Roma in the Champions League quarter-final — and doubts still remain over the 33-year-old's ability to return to his best in a United shirt.
But although Neville conceded a penalty with a late challenge in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Kaizer Chiefs at Newlands, boss Ferguson admitted that the hour he played in that game was another vital step for the long-serving defender.
And Neville is now expected to be given a full game against Pirates in Durban when United move on to the second stage of their three-game tour of South Africa.
Ferguson said: “Gary had his first 45 minutes in sixteen months against Aberdeen, which is a long time out at his age, before we came out to South Africa and, a week later, he has come on again with his hour against Kaizer Chiefs.
“Obviously his tackling has not improved! But I am very pleased because he is a remarkable man.
“Anyone who has played football knows that, when you get to your 30s and been out of the game for 16 months, your comeback is very, very difficult.
“But his enthusiasm and the speed of his play on Saturday was quite phenomenal. He takes a lot of the credit, the boy.”
A back spasm suffered by Rio Ferdinand during the pre-match warm-up on Saturday has left the England defender doubtful for the Pirates clash at the Absa Stadium.
And Ferguson admits that Ferdinand needs to get on the pitch at some stage of the tour in order not to fall too far behind his team-mates in the fitness stakes.
He said: “I will make some changes for the next game because we have to give everyone some minutes on the clock, Rio Ferdinand in particular.
“He missed the game at Aberdeen and he is behind schedule in terms of games, but hopefully he is going to be fit.”
In the absence of regular number one Edwin van der Sar, Polish goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak made the starting line-up against Chiefs and the former West Bromwich Albion keeper admits he is desperate to start more games for United this season.
He said: “I hope to get more chances to play in the future. I say this openly because I came to Manchester two years ago and I've trained very hard.
“I always try to be ready for the team and I hope my chance will come soon and I'll get more games to prove myself.
“The first game back after a break is always a little difficult because you don't know where you are with your form, but I'm happy with mine and I'll keep going.”
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