The future of Chelsea's midfielder Michael Ballack was thrown into doubt last night when the club announced that they would not be including the injured player in their 23-man squad to play in the group stages of the Champions League this season. Ballack's exclusion raises the possibility that the club could sell him in January.
The Germany captain suffered a bad ankle injury on 22 April against Newcastle and has not played since then, twice undergoing surgery. Club sources have said that he is still a long way from being fit and will struggle to play again before November. However, the decision to leave him out of the Champions League squad was bizarre, given that Chelsea play their final group stage match at home to Valencia on 11 December.
If the 30-year-old was to be sold in January he would be a much more attractive prospect to Europe's biggest clubs if he was eligible to play in the Champions League for his new club. Chelsea issued a statement last night to say that they hoped Ballack would be fit to play in the knockout stage – provided they qualify – when new players can be added to a club's Champions League squad.
Nevertheless, the decision not to play Ballack in European football's biggest competition before the new year will come as a severe blow to the player – especially as it is feasible that he may be fit in time. What makes the decision even stranger is that Chelsea have chosen to register only 23 " A-list" players – and to ignore Ballack – when they are entitled to register 25.
During the summer, Ballack released a statement committing himself to Chelsea in order to defuse reports that he was to move to Real Madrid. After coming on a free transfer from Bayern Munich in the summer of last year amid great expectations, he had a disappointing first season. Defended all year by Jose Mourinho, the player then fell out with his manager in the last few weeks of the season over his decision to have an operation on his troublesome ankle.
The Chelsea statement said that they hoped Ballack would be "available for the latter stages of the competition, should we qualify". It added: "Unfortunately, Michael's current injury meant, at the time of the squad submission deadline, we could not guarantee his availability for the majority of the group phase games." Given they have two free places in the squad, there would have been nothing to stop Chelsea registering Ballack on the off-chance he would be fit for just one of the group games.
The German will notice, however, that Chelsea have registered Wayne Bridge for the group stages despite the fact that his hip injury is reckoned to be more serious than the ankle injury to Ballack.
Ballack has been working on his rehabilitation full-time at Chelsea's training ground since the summer. While he did not go on the pre-season tour of California, the player has long believed that he is close to fitness despite a nagging pain in the ankle. Joachim Löw, Germany's coach, expects Ballack to feature in his side's game against the Republic of Ireland on 13 October. "His [Ballack's] injury is over now," said Löw yesterday, "it's becoming better from day to day."
This latest move, coming a day after Chelsea's defeat to Aston Villa, suggests that tensions at the club are still high. After sustaining the injury, Ballack was told by Chelsea's medical staff that he would be fit to play against Bolton six days later. Instead he travelled to Munich on 27 April to seek a second opinion from the sports injury specialist Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt and underwent surgery to remove a piece of bone from his ankle.
Mourinho was understood to be so incensed by Ballack's behaviour that he wanted him sacked. But the German eventually convinced him that he had had no choice but to undergo surgery. Chelsea were then forced to issue a statement replying to what they called "speculation" which effectively said that the club doctors had been wrong and the player right. Strangely, the club also said: "Nobody's future at Chelsea was ever in doubt following his operation."