A scan on Wayne Rooney's right ankle revealed last night that he has sprained it – a hugely gratifying prognosis for Fabio Capello, though one which will keep the striker out of football for four to six weeks and is likely to mean he will play only two more league games for Manchester United this season.
The results of the scan undertaken late yesterday afternoon at a private hospital in Whalley Range, Manchester, are by no means as bad as they could have been. Critically, there are no torn ligaments in the ankle, the diagnosis which could have put Rooney out of the World Cup, with news of the sprain bearing out the assurances Fabio Capello was given early yesterday that the striker would be available to him in South Africa. Rooney has simply suffered a sharp stretch of the ankle. He is most likely to miss four weeks, six weeks out being the worst Sir Alex Ferguson could possibly expect. Four weeks, though, would still see him miss seven United games before returning for the visit to Sunderland on 1 May.
It also means that Rooney has precious little time before England's countdown to the World Cup begins in earnest, with internationals at home to Mexico on 24 May and against Japan in Austria six days' later.
United will be deprived of Rooney for a critical, challenging period of the season, starting with Saturday's Premier League summit meeting with Chelsea at Old Trafford. They then have the second leg with Bayern, followed, after a tricky match at Blackburn, by the Manchester derby at Eastlands on 17 April. Both legs of any putative Champions League semi-final, against Lyons or Bordeaux, are unlikely, as well as Tottenham's visit to Old Trafford. United's title bid may rest with Dimitar Berbatov's ability to demonstrate he was worth the £30.5m Sir Alex Ferguson paid for him the summer before last.
Though Rooney left the field in some distress in Munich, he did not wear the demeanour of an individual whose season was over, leaning over the back of his seat to speak to the players behind him during a flight though the two-hour journey back into Manchester Airport concluded with a particularly bumpy landing in a grey North-west. Rooney did seem to go over on his ankle rather than twist it – twisting being the action which tends to damage ligaments – and his manager had suggested immediately that the injury may not be too bad.
The striker did not come through the usual airport departure channel at Munich but was instead driven straight to the plane in a people carrier, on crutches as he boarded. An Audi was awaiting him at Manchester in which, after he waited on the plane while other passengers disembarked, he was whisked through a VIP exit avoiding passport control. A source close to the United dressing room suggested that the initial prognosis was two to three weeks out, though this had been extended to a possible four weeks before the scan was carried out.
Capello, who looked on with horror from the stands at the Allianz Arena when Rooney crumpled to the turf in added time, would have taken last night's diagnosis on Wednesday night. The lack of domestic football might be seen as a negative – with only the Champions League final following the Stoke home match, if United make it all the way to the Bernabeu. But a month out is a month free from the risk of more serious injury. The break could make him fresher for South Africa. It would also give him time to rest the knee injury which has plagued him in recent weeks – his kneecap tendons have been strained.
"It would be a massive blow for us if Wayne doesn't play [in the games coming up]," said Darren Fletcher. "He is quite obviously one of the best players in the world. But we have other good players. If Wayne isn't available, we will rally round. Berbatov, Valencia and Giggs came off the bench against Bayern so we still have a lot of quality."
Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar added: "We have shown we can get through important games without Wayne. Against Bolton we got a good win when he was missing. It can happen during the course of a season. Of course, you would rather have your best players available but we have got players who can come in and do a good job."
Time for Berbatov to raise his game
A mere 48 hours after Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben posited the thought that niggles away at some Manchester United fans about their team – "Rooney seems to be their only solution, what if he doesn't function?" – Sir Alex Ferguson must have found himself wandering around his side's German hotel nursing that same thought yesterday.
It is not the 34-goal striker's "non-functioning" which he has to fret about, but his non-appearance for the course of a desperately challenging period of football during which the only "straightforward" match for the Premier League champions is a visit to Blackburn Rovers – who have not been beaten at home since losing to Spurs in December.
It was a sobering day for Ferguson and one in which those United fans wondered whether the pundits on the MUTV channel, who claimed in Monday's analysis of the 4-0 win at Bolton minus Rooney that the side could comfortably exist without him, really knew what they were on about. The punditry was based on the performance of Dimitar Berbatov, who scored twice in that match and whose contribution in the 3-0 win over Fulham was his best game of the season.
Berbatov certainly has the incentive. Nearly 11 months have elapsed since he received the most devastating news of his United career – that he would start the Champions League final against Barcelona on the bench – and though he did appear just after the hour, his agent, Emil Dantchev, said the following morning how desperate it had been for Berbatov to see the team sheet and how it was his goal to make a place in this season's final his own.
He certainly will not be short of responsibilities now. United expect Rooney back by the time any European Cup final comes their way but it's on his 6ft 1in frame that United's destiny now rests. For pure strikers, Ferguson has next to no one else, with Michael Owen already ruled out. Danny Welbeck returned from his loan at Preston with a knee injury which will keep him out for the rest of the season, leaving Federico Macheda and the unproven 22-year-old Mame Biram Diouf, who arrived in January.
Macheda is the one with proven Premier League ability. This time last year he was demonstrating the form which was instrumental to United's title – with the wondergoal which overcame Aston Villa last April and the winner at Sunderland seven days later – though hamstring and calf injuries have impeded his development this time. Diouf's goal against Burnley provided a sense of promise but nothing more.
Which puts the responsibility squarely on Berbatov's shoulders. The first part of the season was characterised by bursts of ability but also a tendency to censure younger team-mates when the run of the ball went against him – not welcome in a player whose languid air does not always give the impression he is fighting the cause. And while overcoming Fulham with consummate ease is one thing, dealing with Chelsea, Blackburn, Manchester City and Tottenham looks quite something else. Berbatov has failed to score against any of the current top eight clubs this season; Everton are the highest-ranked side to have conceded a goal to him.
One conceivable twist to this plot is Ferguson being confronted with more evidence than ever in next month's Eastlands derby that he was wrong to sell Carlos Tevez. He is certainly going to need goals from Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs and perhaps Park Ji-sung to prove his claim that United's success is collegiate. He can also store faith in a vital statistic: United have won eight out of nine games without Rooney this season. Ian Herbert
The lucky break Capello needed?
However quickly and however comprehensively Wayne Rooney recovers from his current ankle injury, there is still much football to be played before England's opening World Cup game on 12 June, and the ghastly possibility that he may not be available needs to be faced. Bookmakers, reacting as speedily as ever, had already lengthened the odds against England winning the trophy long before Manchester United returned home yesterday.
A case can be made that Rooney's injury is a blessing in disguise for Fabio Capello, ensuring his key player gets some rest before South Africa and allowing the knee condition that caused friction with Sir Alex Ferguson last month to heal. However, should the worst happen and the striker not recover by June, who would be Capello's best bet as a replacement for his leading goalscorer and most dynamic performer?
There are two obvious possibilities – plans B and C, you might say – depending on whether the manager prefers to employ the 4-2-3-1 system with which Croatia were destroyed at Wembley last autumn or revert to the more conventionally English 4-4-2.
In the former system, Emile Heskey has usually been the target man, Rooney behind him, with Aaron Lennon (when fit) on the right flank and Steven Gerrard to the left. Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry have sat a little deeper. The extra space has always suited Rooney, who has also linked up particularly well with Gerrard. The formation could easily be replicated by pushing Lampard into the Rooney role, where he is happiest anyway, and bringing back Michael Carrick alongside Barry.
Whether Heskey (seven goals in 57 internationals) remains the principal striker rather than Peter Crouch (20 in 37) is another question, which comes into sharper focus if Capello decides on a 4-4-2. In that event, a strong case can be made for a club partnership in attack. The obvious pairing is Tottenham's Crouch and Jermain Defoe, a classic combination of little and large, with a built-in understanding of where to find each other. Crouch, with four goals in his last two international appearances, has impressed everyone except, it seems, Capello. Defoe, replaced by Crouch at half-time against Egypt, unfortunately missed a chance to press his claims, as he did in his previous appearance, as a substitute against Brazil.
If Capello really believes he cannot do without Heskey, and wants a second striker with him, there is an alternative club pairing. Rooney, despite his whole-hearted physical commitment, has missed only three England matches in the past two seasons and the beneficiary each time has been Heskey's club-mate Gabriel Agbonlahor. The speedy Villa forward's debut was in a 2-1 win over Germany 16 months ago but was not among five strikers selected against Egypt – he must have feared he was out of contention. Steve Tongue
In the sick bay: England injury list
David James (calf) Paul Robinson (calf) Ledley King (thigh) Jonathan Woodgate (groin) Joleon Lescott (hamstring) Wayne Bridge (hernia) Ashley Cole (ankle) Owen Hargreaves (tendonitis) David Beckham (heel) Jermaine Jenas (groin) Aaron Lennon (groin) Michael Owen (knee) Wayne Rooney (ankle) Jermain Defoe (hamstring)
Sitting it out: Games Rooney may miss
Sat / Chelsea (h) / PL
7 Apr / B Munich (h) / CL
11 Apr / Blackburn (a) / PL
17 Apr / Man City (a) / PL
21 Apr / Lyons / Bordeaux (h) / CL
24 Apr / Tottenham (h) / PL
28 Apr / Lyons / Bordeaux (a) / CL
1 / May / Sunderland (a) / PL
9 / May / Stoke (h) / PL