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The World Cup and the injury issue

Will Inter Milan embrace a defensive mission — to rough up Lionel Messi — that could jeopardize his country’s World Cup chances?

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal against VfB Stuttgart during their Champions League last 16, second leg soccer match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, March 17, 2010. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

BOSTON — The final seconds in Manchester United’s first Champions League showdown with Bayern Munich left all England gasping in stunned disbelief — and not because the German side scored the winning goal on the game’s final touch. Rather it was the sight of Wayne Rooney, the scoring machine around whom England’s World Cup dreams revolve, hobbling off the field with another in a long history of ankle injuries.

Fans were relieved when the injury turned out to be a sprain, not ligament damage, and initial estimates were that Rooney would be sidelined for only two weeks or so — plenty of time for him to be ready for England’s World Cup opener June 12 against the United States. On the day before Man U’s must-win rematch with Bayern Munich, the Daily Telegraph reported that England coach Fabio Capello was confident that Rooney would not play again until his ankle was completely healed.

One can only imagine Capello’s thoughts when Rooney was in Man U’s starting lineup the very next day. And midway through the first half he was again hobbling around — arm raised, signaling the sidelines that he was hurting. Yet even after Man U took a 3-0 lead, Rooney remained on the field and he wasn’t replaced until 10 minutes into the second half when the futility of his efforts was long past apparent. After the game and a Bayern Munich rally that knocked the English power out of the Champions race, Man U coach Alex Ferguson brooked no criticism for rushing Rooney’s return. In a nasty bit of post-game pique, he blamed “typical Germans” for kicking Rooney’s vulnerable ankle (though Munich’s best players are French, Dutch and Belgian).

Ferguson is, of course, not English but all Scotsman and he has his own ambitions that don’t encompass the World Cup. While the Champions crown was foremost among them, Man U is still chasing Chelsea for the Premier League crown and — with just four games remaining — nobody should be surprised if Ferguson calls upon a sub-par Rooney again. Nor shocked if Rooney’s gimpy ankle becomes an enduring controversy for the English World Cup team as well as the focal point of any national disappointment in South Africa.

In recent years there has been much discussion of how the increasingly long season with its multiple competitions is reflected in sub-par Cup performances by bruised, battered and fatigued players. By any standard, the most recent Champions round exacted a potentially huge toll on a host of top European World Cup teams. While Rooney was struggling, French star Franck Ribeiry and Dutch mainstay Arjen Robben were manning the wings for Bayern Munich despite ankle and calf injuries respectively.

And that was hardly the worst of it. Arsenal, in its quarterfinal showdown with Barcelona, saw William Gallas carried off the field with a calf injury before its captain Cesc Fabregas went down with a broken leg, threatening the World Cup campaigns of both a key French central defender as well as one of the lynchpins of the Spanish attack.

The injuries issue sets up an intriguing Champions League subplot when defending champ Barcelona, with its incomparable Argentine star Lionel Messi, visits Inter Milan Tuesday for the first of two semifinal matches. Messi has been so spectacular of late that not only is Barcelona favored to repeat in Europe, but Argentina — despite a wretched qualifying campaign — has risen to third favorite (behind Spain and Brazil) in World Cup betting.