The World Cup and the injury issue

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.

The conventional wisdom is that the most effective defense against the diminutive Messi — “Little Leo” — is to rough him up, knocking him down at every opportunity. And no team defends better or with more physical conviction than Inter Milan; over its last four Champions contests — including back-to-back victories over the Premier League’s top scoring team, Chelsea — Inter has surrendered but a single goal. The question now is whether Inter can crush Barca’s bid by literally crushing its superstar.

What complicates that strategy is that Inter has four key starters — Walter Samuel, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Alberto Diego Milito — who, between them, have played some 250 games for Argentina. Moreover, Samuel, Cambiasso and Zanetti all play critical defensive roles. Nobody doubts their loyalty to the aptly colored black-and-blue; the three have worn those colors for a total of 26 seasons and Zanetti alone has suited up for Inter more than 600 times.

Divided loyalties — between club and country — has always been a bit of a complication, but mostly for front offices and coaches chafing at how the demands of national teams put their players at risk. But on the field it has seldom appeared a problem for countrymen to compete against each other. One only had to watch Man U defender Nemnja Vidic stomp his fellow Croatian, Bayern Munich striker Ivica Olic, and then offer him a hand up to understand how players handle this divide.

But Croatia is not heading to South Africa in June. Argentina and Messi are. And the 22-year-old is now soccer’s singular star. No player is viewed as more critical to his team’s Cup success and no player’s performance in South Africa is more anticipated by fans of all stripes. Can Inter’s Argentine contingent embrace a defensive mission — to rough up Messi — that could jeopardize his country’s World Cup chances? Could even Zanetti, the most-capped player in Argentina’s illustrious soccer history, return home after knocking Messi out of the World Cup or even having dented his step?

Inter’s coach Jose Mourinho is the game’s reigning genius — he essentially dubbed himself “The Special One” — after winning championships in three different countries and now having led his third team to a Champions semi-finals. Might he consider subbing out Samuel in central defense rather than expect roughhouse tactics from him against Messi? Or might Mourinho conceive a fresh defensive approach that will corral Messi and force his talented Barcelona teammates to try and pick up the scoring slack?

Italy vs. Spain, Inter vs. Barca, The Argentines vs. THE Argentine, Mourinho vs. Messi: until the World Cup kicks off in June, the match-ups are as intriguing as anything the game has to offer.