England striker Michael Owen's battle for World Cup fitness will go right down to the wire after it was revealed he is likely to play only one game for Newcastle before the end of the season.
The 26-year-old had been pencilled in for a return from his fractured metatarsal at Birmingham next weekend.
However, caretaker boss Glenn Roeder has admitted that is now unlikely, and that will leave only the final-day clash with Chelsea at St James' Park for Sven-Goran Eriksson's senior marksman to get some football under his belt before preparations begin in earnest for the finals in Germany.
That will come as a major disappointment to both Owen and Roeder, and will prolong Eriksson's headache.
However, Newcastle insist they will not rush their £17million signing back even in the wake of Alan Shearer's career-threatening knee injury - the 35-year-old is unlikely to play again - after seeing Kieron Dyer and Emre break down in the recent past.
Roeder, who has remained confident throughout his reign that Owen will be fit and ready for the World Cup finals, hopes he will be given the go-ahead to step up the final phase of his rehabilitation tomorrow, but that will not come soon enough for the trip to St Andrew's.
'The most we can now hope for is to have Michael back with us for our final game of the season against Chelsea, but we will not rush him,' he said.
'Even with Alan Shearer out, there is no question of us putting any pressure on him.
'At the moment, Michael has done everything our medical team and fitness coach Paul Winsper have asked of him in the past couple of weeks.
'He is now running in a straight line and striking the ball with pace and tomorrow we are hoping to hear from his surgeon that he can start twisting and turning again.
'That would mean he could train properly with the first team again from the start of next week and by the end of it, be close to being fit.'
Owen has not played since breaking the bone in his foot at Tottenham on December 31, a run of 20 games.
Indeed, he has made just 10 appearances since joining the club from Real Madrid in August, although the fact he scored seven goals in those games illustrates his enduring potency.
If he does make it against Chelsea, that would leave him only two friendly internationals - against Hungary on May 30 and Jamaica four days later - in which to rediscover his sharpness before the opening game of the finals campaign against Paraguay in Frankfurt on June 10.
Meanwhile, keeper Shay Given will captain Newcastle for the remainder of the season with Shearer and Scott Parker on the sidelines.
Given, 30 today, has been handed the armband for Saturday's clash with West Brom after impressing his manager.
'As a former captain and defender myself, I'm not usually in favour of goalkeepers going out with the skipper's armband because an outfield player is more in contract with the players around him,' he said.
'But I have got to know Shay Given very well in the past couple of months and like everyone, I know what tremendous ability he has.
'However, it is not just his ability, but he has huge respect in the dressing room among the players, and that is so important.
'You have to look for a lot of qualities in a captain and Shay ticks just about all the boxes.
'I believe he will be the first goalkeeper to lead Newcastle out in a Premiership game on Saturday, and I have complete faith in him.'