Ballack's career still on hold after return delayed until January

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The Independent Online

Michael Ballack is aiming to be back early next year after two injuries which have kept the Germany captain out for most of the current season as well as the World Cup in South Africa.

The Bayer Leverkusen midfielder, who will also need to fight for his place in the Germany team that clinched third spot at the World Cup in July without him, is on crutches and recovering from a broken shinbone and a torn ligament.

"My aim is the second part of the season. It is then that I want to be back on the pitch and help the boys," he said yesterday.

The 34-year-old was initially expected to return at the end of this month after fracturing his shinbone in a match on 11 September. But further medical tests showed he would need more time.

Ballack, who missed the World Cup and has not played for his country since injuring his ankle in the FA Cup final while at Chelsea in May, joined his former club this season after a four-year spell in England.

Ballack was not recalled for the first batch of Euro 2012 qualifiers because of a lack of match practice from his injury in May that kept him out for three months.

His fractured shinbone also kept him out of Germany's Group A qualifiers against Turkey and Kazakhstan earlier this month, putting his hopes of adding to his 98 international caps on hold.

Bulgaria, who are in England's group in qualifying for Euro 2012, have been subject to some withering criticism from Hristo Stoichkov, whose goals propelled them to the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup. Stoichkov said the current side were not good enough to carry the bags of the team from his generation.In a damning assessment of their current struggles Stoichkov, 44,said: "Those who play now would have not even been worthy of carrying our suitcases at the time."

The former Barcelona striker added: "It's so difficult to find players like Lechkov and Balakov. Well, maybe we could've found a place for [now retired striker Dimitar] Berbatov on the bench." Asked about Aston Villa captain Stilian Petrov, the 1994 European Footballer of the Year replied: "A perfect substitute!"

Bulgaria have made little impact on the world stage since the retirement of Stoichkov's golden generation. They did qualify for the finals of Euro 2004 but lost all three group games to make an early exit.

Since then a variety of coaches, including Stoichkov himself who had an unsuccessful stint in charge between 2004 and 2007, have been unable to turn around Bulgaria's declining fortunes.

"I was wasting my time as Bulgaria coach," said Stoichkov, who was also well known in his playing days for his aggressive manner on the field, often arguing with referees and other players.

"There's a serious problem in Bulgaria. They don't work with the young players and we can't produce top-class players any more."

The current coach is former Germany World Cup-winning captain Lothar Matthaus, who became the first foreign Bulgaria coach since 1966 when he replaced Stanimir Stoilov in September. Matthaus enjoyed a winning start to his tenure after a 1-0 victory over Wales in a Euro 2012 Group G qualifier on 8 October. Despite the win, Bulgaria are fourth in the five-team group with three points from three games.

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