Neville set to miss World Cup after 'Beckham' injury

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The Independent Football

It was not as wilfully crude as the challenge which ended David Beckham's season and The Sun will not be publishing a photograph of his foot and urging its readers to touch it and pray but the damage to Gary Neville's World Cup hopes may be just as severe.

The Manchester United defender was stretchered off after 18 minutes of last night's European Cup semi-final with the same injury – a broken metatarsal – as suffered by Beckham, his closest friend in football, in the quarter-final victory over Deportivo La Coruña. "They must room together too much," said his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. "We are being devastated by injuries."

It is not exactly the same. To be exact, he broke his fifth metatarsal while Beckham broke his second and the challenge by Bayer Leverkusen's Brazilian winger, Ze Roberto, in no way compared to the ugly lunge by Pablo Duscher that sparked a frenzy of speculation over Beckham's chances of making it to Japan which was quelled only by the story of Sven and Ulrika.

Nevertheless, the implications for the England manager and for Manchester United will be grave. First reserve is Danny Mills, who is untried at international level and, frankly, will be a risk in Japan both in terms of discipline and ability or his brother, Phil. The fact that Ferguson brought Phil Neville on a substitute last night and then removed him is one indication among many that he is not in his brother's class or versatility.

It would have concerned the United manager, too, that Laurent Blanc, who has grown increasingly commanding as this season has driven towards its conclusion, had to haul himself up the dressing-room stairs and that Ronny Johnsen, his other proven centre-half, is injured. Roy Keane will lead his team out in the BayArena on Tuesday but although he is capable of giving the kind of dramatic half-time talk with which Michael Ballack roused his side at Old Trafford last night, he cannot be fully fit.

Gary Neville's value at Old Trafford is obvious; you would have to go back to the 4-0 defeat of Ipswich on 22 September to find a Premiership game in which he played no part and those who argue that this season United's defence has resembled something under the command of Sergeant Bilko have reckoned without their displays in the Champions' League, in which they have conceded less than a goal a game.

Neville was, incidentally, one of only two survivors in Ferguson's starting line-up from the side that played Juventus in the Stadio delle Alpi three years ago and recovered from conceding an away goal at Old Trafford and two more early on in Turin to win crazily 3-2. Ferguson was not slow to invoke the spirit of that match but this more closely resembled the visit of the last German team to contest a semi-final here.

Ottmar Hitzfeld's Borussia Dortmund side were as underestimated as Klaus Toppmöller's was last night. Again the media looked forward to a final in a city with a special resonance; in 1997 it was Munich rather than Ferguson's native Glasgow and again the Germans surprised.

Then it was Andy Cole and Eric Cantona who missed 15 clear chances to create what Ferguson called "an earthquake of disappointment". Yesterday, it was the failure of Ruud van Nistelrooy to rediscover his touch in front of goal that sparked off a tremor that could yet unseat United's grand ambitions.

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