Wayne Rooney will be given "every chance" to prove his fitness before the World Cup finals, Sven Goran Eriksson said yesterday, but there will be no guarantee that the 20-year-old will be taken to Germany after breaking a metatarsal bone in his foot on Saturday.
The fracture of the fourth metatarsal of Rooney's right foot has plunged England's World Cup prospects into gloom. A broken metatarsal, the injury curse of the modern footballer, can mean, as in Michael Owen's case, five months out of action - for Rooney the prognosis is not yet clear.
Manchester United will not permit the striker to travel to Germany on 5 June unless there is a reasonable chance that he will be fit to play in some part of the competition. It is a certainty that Eriksson will name him in his provisional squad a week from today, on 8 May, although it has not yet been decided whether he will attend the training camp in Portugal from 15-20 May. On 8 May, Eriksson will name a 23-man squad with three reserves for the World Cup finals and then a week later on 15 May will submit his final 23 to Fifa. The governing body will permit one injured player to be changed within 24 hours of a country's first match - in England's case that is 10 June - on the condition he is examined by a Fifa doctor.
After earlier claims that Rooney would be taken to the World Cup finals regardless of his fitness, Eriksson spoke last night to clarify the situation.
"If we - Alex Ferguson, myself, the medical staff of Manchester United and England - think he could take part I will pick him," Eriksson said. "The doctors have spoken to each other but it is too early to know.
"It's a hope," Eriksson added. "He is one of the best players in the world. If he has a chance to get fit during the World Cup we'll pick him. I hope the World Cup is not over for Rooney, for him, the fans, our team, everyone. [But] if the medical staff say there is no chance I can't pick him. He is optimistic and a fighter. I don't want to rule him out of the World Cup until they tell me it is impossible because it is Wayne Rooney. "
The striker travelled back by train from London with the team on Saturday and was at home yesterday - he is in plaster but has not been operated upon. He visited United's training ground for treatment and the full extent of his injury is likely to emerge today. Despite widespread pessimism about his prospects from within football, specialists contacted by The Independent yesterday gave cause for some hope.
The timescale on Rooney's injury will be crucial. His previous metatarsal injury - the fifth of his right foot - kept him out of action for three months from 24 June, when he broke it in the Euro 2004 game against Portugal, to 28 September when he marked his debut for United against Fenerbahce with a hat-trick. The prospect of a recovery within seven weeks would see him back for the round of last 16, although, until the nature of his break is established, it is unclear what his recovery time would be. A stress fracture that has been building over time, like the one suffered by Ashley Cole in October, would take longer to heal.
Steven Gerrard broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot against United in September 2004 and returned within eight weeks. Yesterday, David Nugent, the Preston North End striker, set a record for a metatarsal injury when he returned after six weeks and four days out after a break to the fifth metatarsal of his right foot. The 21-year-old had a screw inserted in the bone by the surgeon John Hodgkinson, who treated Gerrard and Owen, and is likely to also take care of Rooney. Rooney's similar age, and the fact that the fourth metatarsal is a less serious bone to break than the fifth, could help.
Orthopaedic specialists yesterday said that there was still hope Rooney could play in Germany - although judging his comeback would come down to a matter of days. Christopher Bulstrode, clinical reader in orthopaedics at the University of Oxford, said: "Everyone heals at a different rate and younger people such as Rooney, who is just 20 and a big, fit boy, heal quicker. So I would say it should heal within four to six weeks. But playing him will be a calculated risk because it will be difficult to see whether the bone is knitted or not at that point.
"A few days extra to heal could make all the difference. A healed bone could be even stronger than the original, but one that has not healed could break again. It's going to be a very close call whether or not you play him.''
Angus Wallace, professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham, also believed that Rooney could be playing again within four to six weeks. "I think that he should be out for six weeks, although it is possible he might be OK within four.''
"The fourth metatarsal is an easier bone to repair itself than the fifth, because the fourth is effectively put in splints by the third and the fifth. And fractures of the base always heal more readily than ones of the shaft.'' But he added: "The real question is whether he will be fully fit, because he will be prevented from doing any proper training over the next few weeks.''
Owen had a scan of his healed metatarsal yesterday which showed no further problems and the gash to John Terry's leg should heal quickly. Jose Mourinho said that he would protect his captain, and Frank Lampard, from any further potential injury. "I'm ready to let them finish for the season now," Mourinho said.
England's probable squad of 23: The fit, the injured and the recovering
Robinson (Tottenham) Fit
James (Man City) Fit
Green (Norwich) Out since 8 April with ankle injury, but should be fit
Terry (Chelsea) Gash in right foot on Saturday needed 10 stitches - not serious
Ferdinand (Man Utd) No injury worries
Campbell (Arsenal) Achilles, calf and ankle injuries have wrecked season, but should be fit
King (Tottenham) Broken fourth left metatarsal. Touch and go
Carragher (Liverpool) Fit
A Cole (Arsenal) Disastrous season, may be fit
G Neville (Man Utd) Fit
Bridge (Fulham, on loan from Chelsea) Fit
Beckham (Real Madrid) Fit
Lampard (Chelsea) Fit, indestructible
Gerrard (Liverpool) Fit
J Cole (Chelsea) Fit
Wright-Phillips (Chelsea) Fit - but last started a game on 19 March
Carrick (Tottenham) Fit
Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) Fit
Owen (Newcastle) Broke fifth right metatarsal on 31 December. Played for the first time since then on Saturday - X-rays say he is fine
Rooney (Man Utd) Broken fourth right metatarsal. Doubtful
Crouch (Liverpool) Fit
Defoe (Tottenham) Fit
Darren Bent (Charlton) Fit
Reasons to be cheerful
* ROONEY'S AGE Bones heal rapidly in strong young men.
* THE BONE A fracture of the fifth metatarsal is more serious than a fracture of the fourth. The fourth is effectively held in a splint by the third and fifth metatarsals.
* THE BREAK The actual break in Rooney's bone is one of the base of the bone rather than the shaft and is therefore likely to heal more rapidly.