Chelsea's decision not to select Michael Ballack in their Champions League squad has become even more bizarre after it emerged yesterday that Wayne Bridge - who was selected - is likely to be out for another eight weeks. Doubt surrounds Ballack's long-term future at Chelsea after he was not registered for the group stages.
Bridge, who has a hip injury, is projected to return to fitness even later than Ballack, who could have taken the Englishman's place in the 23-man squad announced on Monday. The two players have been doing their rehabilitation together and it is the German who is understood to be making greater progress.
Ballack, 30, is recovering from an ankle operation in April, although no one at the club can say for certain when he will be fit to play matches. Despite coming through resistance work in a hydrotherapy pool, he has not yet trained with the first team and has recurring pain in his left ankle, which has twice been operated on since a Titus Bramble tackle at St James' Park in April.
The Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff added his voice to those shocked by Michael Ballack's omission from Chelsea's Champions League squad yesterday when he described the decision as "stunning". "Obviously we're concerned," said Bierhoff. "Michael is the only one who can tell us what happened. It's stunning when a player of his calibre is not included in the Champions League squad. We're still hopeful that Michael will be with us on 13 October for the Euro qualifier against Ireland. But the most important thing is that he is 100 per cent fit for the Euros next summer."
The Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, was forced to make a decision to cut one of his senior foreign players from the squad under Uefa's new guidelines for picking "locally trained players". At least three of the players in every Champions League squad must have been at the club from the age of 15. Only John Terry qualifies under those guidelines for Chelsea and, with Scott Sinclair ineligible because of his loan spell at Plymouth, the club were obliged to leave two places unoccupied.
It came as a blow for Ballack that his club judged his recovery would not be soon enough for them to pick him in place of even some of the more peripheral members of the first-team squad. Ultimately, Ballack was sacrificed in favour of the likes of the third-choice goalkeeper Hilario and third-choice right-back Paulo Ferreira on the basis that he would not be fit for what Chelsea described as the "majority" of their games. It was a decision taken even with his fellow midfielder Frank Lampard carrying toe and thigh injuries.
Ballack has been under the guidance of the Chelsea medical department since he returned for pre-season and has been working full-time at the club's training ground to get his ankle healed. He is understood to be in excellent condition in terms of fitness, but has been unable to shake off the pain in his ankle where he had surgery first to remove a chipped piece of bone and later on the wound itself.
Even though Ballack has seen another specialist in Amsterdam it has been impossible to put a firm date of his possible return to action for Chelsea – and it was for those reasons that Mourinho decided that he would rather give the remaining places in his Champions League squad to other, less celebrated players.
Regardless of the expediency of the decision, it certainly appears that a message has been sent to Ballack that his manager is not prepared even to take a risk on him on the basis that he might be fit to play in the last two group games against Rosenborg on 28 November and Valencia on 11 December. Ballack could still be registered for the later stages of the Champions League at the expense of one of the current squad, but if he has not played in the first stage he would command a higher price in the January transfer window should the club wish to sell him.
Germany's head coach Joachim Löw said yesterday that he was of the understanding that "the injury has healed and it's getting better by the day.".
He added: "It's quite a surprise that he won't be playing in the Champions League this year. We have to talk with each other on the telephone first because I don't know any more details yet myself."