MARK Hughes' fears that Wales targetman John Hartson will miss their vital Euro 2004 qualifier in Serbia/Montenegro deepened last night.

Hartson's club Celtic admitted he was making 'slow but ongoing' progress following a back operation eight weeks ago.

The burly 28-year-old striker (pictured) is the key man in Hughes' Welsh renaissance, scoring four goals in his last five Wales games.

Hartson is in the United States with Celtic on their pre-season tour but will not play in any matches as his rehabilitation continues.

The 35-times capped Hartson, with ten Welsh goals to his name, missed Celtic's UEFA Cup final defeat due to his back injuryHughes, whose men lead Group Nine from Italy by two points, is keeping regular tabs on Hartson as he might be forced out of Wales' August 20 trip to Belgrade.

But Hartson himself insists: "I should be back for the start of the season, maybe a week into it at worst.

"I have been kicking the ball, running, jumping and sprinting. I'm doing virtually everything but I need to get in some match practice.

"I'll hopefully get involved with the Celtic team by the start of next week. With the back, you can't rush things along."

Hughes is hoping that Celtic boss Martin O'Neill will release Hartson so soon after his return from injury.

Hughes will be left with a huge hole to fill in that lone-ranger role up-front if Hartson fails to link up with Wales Newport-born striker Nathan Blake at Premiership new boys Wolverhampton Wanderers could be an option.

Robert Earnshaw is available to Hughes, but the Welsh chief would be forced to change his whole game-plan if the pint-sized Cardiff City livewire was given the nod alongside Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs.

Meanwhile, Wales fledgling Rob Edwards, who won his first cap in the 4-0 win against Azerbaijan in March, was last night flying home alone from Aston Villa's Scandinavian pre-season tour as his ankle injury has flared-up.

The 20-year-old defender went on as a substitute in Villa's 3-0 victory over TPS Turku on Tuesday evening but the ankle has swollen up. It is feared he could miss the Serbia game in less than four weeks time.

Hughes, however, has received some much-needed cheer as Robbie Savage and Mark Delaney are on course for the clash in Belgrade's Red Star Stadium.

Birmingham City midfielder Savage played in his side's Premier League Asia Cup match with Newcastle United yesterday - up against fellow Welshmen Gary Speed and Craig Bellamy.

And Aston Villa right-back Mark Delaney is back in full-training after suffering knee ligament damage at the end of last season. The 27-year-old defender started in Villa's pre-season win against TPS Turku.