Pires can see light at end of tunnel after injury nightmare

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The Independent Online

Robert Pires hopes to make his competitive debut for Villarreal by the end of February - some nine months after signing for the club from Arsenal.

Pires joined the Spanish side on a two-year contract last summer but suffered a cruciate ligament injury to his left knee during a pre-season friendly with Cadiz in August. The former France international underwent surgery in September, and since then the 33-year-old has been on the long road to recovery.

However, Pires can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. "I have reached the end of my rehabilitation, I was operated on four months ago. At the end of January, I am going to be able to start training again with the team. I hope to be able to play again at the end of February, but not before," he said.

Pires is no stranger to serious knee injuries, having missed almost six months of action in 2002 after damaging the cruciate ligaments in his right knee - a setback that ruled him out of that year's World Cup.

The veteran winger, who has received messages of support from the likes of Arsène Wenger, Thierry Henry and Gérard Houllier during his rehabilitation, knows it is important not to come back before he is ready. "I feel very well but I don't want to rush things. The doctor has warned me to be careful, because the smallest thing can provoke a reaction," he said. "The first time I did this [in April 2002], I was back in competition in five and a half months. I am on course for this again."

Without Pires, Villarreal have picked up 24 points from their opening 17 La Liga games, and currently lie 11th in the standings.

Elsewhere, Everton will have support from Rocky Balboa on Sunday when they face Reading in front of the TV cameras. But Everton's American goalkeeper Tim Howard has nothing to worry about from his countryman even if the screen legend Sylvester Stallone once played a goalkeeper in the Escape to Victory film. Stallone will be the special guest of the club for Sunday's Premiership match, a visit that the new major shareholder Robert Earl promised when he bought into the club last year. The actor is a close friend of the US-based Londoner - the man behind the Planet Hollywood chain of restaurants.

Stallone is in the UK to publicise the launch of his new film, Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the Rocky series, which will be released next week. After Sunday's match, Stallone will move on to London for the UK premiere of his new film on Tuesday.

The Everton chief executive Keith Wyness said: "It is exciting that Sylvester Stallone is coming to Goodison Park. Robert Earl, the new investor, has been very kind to arrange for Rocky to come up to a game and it is going to be quite an occasion.

"Of all the film stars around today, there are not many you can take on to the pitch at a sporting occasion and have some relevance. But Sylvester - and his part as Rocky - has a special place in the hearts of sports fans."

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