Top players gear up for World Cup

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> While the start of the World Cup can't come soon enough for soccer fans, Ronaldo and many other top stars wouldn't mind a few extra weeks.

Updated: February 25, 2007 11:40 IST
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While the start of the World Cup can't come soon enough for millions of soccer fans, Ronaldo and many other top stars wouldn't mind a few extra weeks. Brazil's 2002 World Cup hero is trying to overcome an injury and get healthy in time for the tournament, which opens June 9. So are Italy's Francesco Totti, Argentina's Lionel Messi, England's Michael Owen, Spain's Xavi Hernandez and the Czech Republic's Jan Koller. Ronaldo, whose eight goals led Brazil to its record fifth World Cup title in 2002, has been injured six times this season and recently tore muscle fibers in his right thigh while playing for Real Madrid in the Spanish league. He was on Brazil's team at the last three World Cups and enters this year's tournament tied with Pele at 12 goals, trailing only Gerd Mueller (14) and Just Fontaine (13) on the career scoring list. ''He will stop for two or three weeks, can recover and return in even better condition,'' Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said last week. Host Germany will be without midfielder Sebastian Deisler, out for about six months after knee surgery. Deisler, one of the most gifted German players with the ball, appeared to have made a successful comeback from several knee operations and two bouts of depression. ''Sebastian played a big role in our planning for the World Cup,'' coach Juergen Klinsmann said last month. Argentina is among the top contenders after Brazil, and the 18-year-old Messi is expected to be one of the team's breakthrough players. But the FC Barcelona forward tore muscle fibers in his right thigh last month and hasn't played since. Gabriel Heinze could also be unfit for Argentina, which last won the World Cup title in 1986. The Manchester United defender ruptured knee ligaments against Villarreal in the Champions League in September, but the English team is still hoping he'll be back before the season ends on May 7. ''Everything is going fantastically for Gaby so far,'' United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz said last month. Italy, which is in Group E at the World Cup with the United States, the Czech Republic and Ghana, could be missing Totti. The AS Roma playmaker usually takes his position behind the two strikers, and is key to Italy's attack. Totti, who broke his left leg and strained ligaments in his ankle in February, recently said he would like to be back in time for the Italian Cup final on May 3. Christian Vieri is another worry for Italy coach Marcello Lippi. The Monaco striker injured his left knee last month while playing in the French league. Vieri moved to Monaco from AC Milan in order to get enough playing time to impress Lippi and make Italy's World Cup team. The Czechs reached the semifinals at the 2004 European Championship, but they could struggle without Koller, their career scoring leader. The Borussia Dortmund striker had surgery on a knee ligament after being injured in September, and was expected to be sidelined for eight months. Koller, with 40 international goals in 66 matches, believes he will be ready in time for Germany. The United States faces injury worries from captain Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien. Both players are critical to the American midfield. Reyna missed two months for Manchester City after ankle surgery Dec. 26, then was out with a separated shoulder from mid-March until April 8. O'Brien, the former Ajax midfielder who has been hampered by a groin injury, last week made his first appearance for the national team since August and on Saturday played only the last five minutes of Chivas USA's 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy. England is hoping Owen and defender Ashley Cole will be at the World Cup. Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson thinks his team can win its second title if all his players are healthy. Owen broke his foot more than three months ago and on April 13 began training with a fitness coach. Newcastle manager Glenn Roeder is hoping he'll be back with the club soon. ''It's onwards and upwards again for Michael, and I'm confident he will play for Newcastle before the end of the season,'' Roeder said last week. Cole, still recovering from a broken foot and a thigh injury, recently sprained his ankle. Paraguay could be missing its top player, striker Roque Santa Cruz. The Bayern Munich forward made his return to the Bundesliga on April 8 after being sidelined five months with torn ligaments in his right knee. ''I'm delighted to be back. It's all gone so quickly, I never thought it would be like that,'' Santa Cruz said. Spain's biggest worry is Xavi, the Barcelona midfielder who hasn't played since tearing a ligament in his right knee while training in December. However, Xavi's absence has given Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas a spot on the team. How many more World Cup spots will be lost to injuries is anyone's guess.

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