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   21 May, 2002 | 2250 IST


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Ballack carries Germany's hopes

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Michael Ballack is exhausted after a crowded season and nursing a sore foot but only if he lives up to expectations on the big stage can Germany offer a decent World Cup show.

The knee injury that has ruled fellow inspirational midfielder Sebastian Deisler out of this month's finals in South Korea and Japan leaves the Bayer Leverkusen player carrying most of the triple world champions' hopes.

With Bayern Munich's Mehmet Scholl also absent after judging that he was not fit enough, Ballack is the only world class player left at the heart of the Germany team.

Michael Ballack The elegant 25-year-old has made his big breakthrough this season, playing a key role in Germany's victory over Ukraine in last November's playoffs and in Leverkusen's run to the Champions League final.

But a hectic scheduled has taken its toll and Ballack, who will play for Bayern Munich next season, has looked only the shadow of his brilliant self in his recent outings, mostly because of a bruised foot.

The withdrawal of Deisler, who had only recently returned from a lengthy layoff when he hurt his troublesome right knee again in Saturday's 6-2 thrashing of Austria, was the worst thing that could happen to Germany coach Rudi Voeller.

"At first we had a glimmer of hope but now the most important thing to think about is the health of Sebastian rather than the World Cup," said Voeller, whose team fly out to their base in Japan on Wednesday.

Voeller, who had to hand over his official 23-man squad to FIFA on Tuesday, was expected to replace Deisler with Borussia Dortmund's Lars Ricken.

Stefan Beinlich and Joerg Boehme, both also on standby, could step in as well but neither of the three candidates has Deisler's aura nor his creative skills.


Not only in midfield does Voeller has problems as the former World Cup striker had previously lost his two most valued central defenders in Jens Nowotny and Christian Woerns.

With former captain Oliver Bierhoff no longer the threat he used to be up front, Germany cannot be regarded as favourites this time around.

Voeller, who was appointed in the wake of the troubled heavyweights' disastrous Euro 2000 performance, has named the knock-out stage as his minimal aim.

That seems little for a side who have always reached at least the last eight at every finals since 1954, lifting the Cup three times along the way.

But Voeller, whose team are drawn with Cameroon, Ireland and Saudi Arabia in group E, realises that being outsiders takes some pressure off and can only be hoping for a pleasant surprise.

German all-time great Franz Beckenbauer, who won the World Cup both as captain and coach, agrees, saying: "The good thing is that the relatively low expectations could free the players.

"If we get to the quarter-finals, I'll be satisfied. Then we will have had a successful World Cup."

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