THOSE barbs that David Beckham has shunned fire-and-brimstone competition in favour of a sun-kissed easy life have been decisively blunted.
Fabio Capello, never normally shy of expressing concern about his midfielder's lack of serious match practice, might like to cast an eye over Beckham's AC Milan schedule for the next three weeks: a trip to Juventus, then the 'Derby della Madonnina' against Inter at San Siro.
In a World Cup year, there are few better chances than these to ingratiate yourself with a hard-to-please Italian.
Fortunately for Beckham, Capello was in the crowd in Milan on Wednesday night to watch the beginning of his final fitness drive for South Africa.
Even more happily, he produced a performance that distilled all his best traits: energy, accuracy, vision, versatility. The supporters' effusive acclaim upon his substitution after 75 minutes was almost as gratifying as the eulogy from Leonardo, the Milan coach, praising his "enormous tactical intelligence".
Beckham has appeared the picture of contentment ever since his arrival last Tuesday at Malpensa airport, en route to the now familiar trappings of the rossoneri's Milanello laboratory.
There, under the fearsome training regime instituted by Jean-Pierre Meersemann, the club's Belgian doctor, he has been prepared to make any changes, any sacrifices, that might help realise his twin targets of lifting a title with Milan and a World Cup with England.
"David tried every single role, and I think this is what he is all about," Leonardo said. "He is open to anything and has extraordinary quality. He is going to help us a great deal."
It is quite an endorsement for a 34-year-old with enough experience to demand that he be played in his usual station on the right. But in a fast-fluctuating 5-2 win over Genoa, Beckham played first as a third forward, before switching seamlessly into the midfield.
Such flexibility seemed almost calculated to command Capello's attention, but Beckham was oblivious to his master's presence.
The England head coach had spent Christmas in Italy and was due to be undergoing knee surgery yesterday.
"I didn't know he was there, I only found out afterwards," Beckham admitted. "But he loves football and he'll go to every game possible. I know he visits all of the Premier League games and, obviously being in Italy over the Christmas period, he was able to come to this game.
"It's always important that I work hard and perform well -- and I felt that I did that. But it's just one game."
The segue from a traumatic end to the Major League season, where he and his LA Galaxy team-mates fell in the final to Salt Lake City, to the harsh confrontations of Serie A was surprisingly seamless.
Beckham was ready to follow the same Milanello drills he underwent last year -- double afternoon training sessions, painstaking reductions in his body mass index -- before being called upon to start a match. But walking straight back into the first team suited him equally well.
"I didn't expect to start, but obviously with the injuries we had, I had to," Beckham explained. The late withdrawal of Alexandre Pato, the diminutive striker described by the Milan tifosi as 'the duck', had necessitated his involvement up front. "I was happy -- happy with the game and happy with the win. It's just great to be back."
One intriguing dimension to Beckham's second season in Lombardy is the potential clash of personalities with Ronaldinho, his only rival in the side for star appeal.
Tension threatened to surface when the Brazilian wrested the ball away from him after Milan had been awarded their third penalty of the night. It was eventually passed to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who made no mistake, although Beckham brushed the incident aside. "I didn't desperately want to take it.
"To be honest, the penalty-taker should take the penalties, and that's why I gave the ball back to Ronaldinho. That's the way it should be."
Milan having climbed to second in the league, still eight points adrift of Inter, Beckham has a month to relish.
"I think after the first half of the season, we've done well," he said. "We are in a great position and we need to continue because Inter are a great team -- they are going to keep winning games and they are the team to catch. But you know Juventus is a huge game, not just for us but for them as well. You enjoy playing in those games."
Beckham enjoys it all the more in the knowledge that Capello is watching each step of journey, out of much more than idle curiosity. (© Daily Telegraph, London)