Players gripped by injury fear as World Cup draws near

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The distress on Raphael Varane’s face said it all.

The Manchester United and France defender couldn’t hide his emotions as he feared his World Cup hopes were dead.

Pulling his shirt up over his face as he limped off the field at Stamford Bridge last week, he tried to wipe the tears from his eyes.

Varane was too distraught to talk to team doctors in the immediate aftermath, which left both him and United unsure of the extent of the hamstring injury he sustained in the 1-1 draw with Chelsea.

Earlier this month Everton's Richarlison cut a similarly distressed figure when suffering a calf injury.

The Brazil striker had tears in his eyes as he spoke of his “dream” of representing his country at the World Cup potentially being over.

Both Varane and Richarlison have since been given hope they could yet make Qatar with neither injury as serious as first feared.

But their reactions underlined the pressure being felt by players as the World Cup draws closer – especially as club soccer will continue right up to the week before it kicks off next month.

And the potential for injury is exacerbated by the congestion of matches brought about by a mid-season international tournament.

Leading clubs have largely been playing twice a week since the start of the campaign in order to complete the first stages of the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League.

That caused natural concern among national team coaches, who will only have a week with their players when the domestic season pauses.

“What I see is a really packed schedule now, a lot of players playing a lot of minutes, and realistically we will lose more,” said England head coach Gareth Southgate last month. “I just think it’s so intense and the players have had so much football.”

Southgate plans to name his squad just before the last round of Premier League matches, which is the weekend of November 12-13.

He has already seen Reece James almost certainly ruled out with a knee injury that will side-line the Chelsea defender for an estimated eight weeks.

Manchester City pair Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips are both trying to recover from groin and shoulder surgery, respectively, which is expected to keep them out until the World Cup.

The jeopardy heading into every game before the tournament is now clear – and was evident in the reactions of Varane and Richarlison.

But United manager Erik ten Hag has warned his players against being distracted by Qatar.

“Focus is so important because if you don’t have the right focus the risk is even more,” the Dutchman said this week. “Keep in the rhythm, keep in the right fitness and shape and then they will be ready for the World Cup. They are best prepared.

“Of course, it is not optimum. That is clear. It is a different World Cup, but that is something national managers have to deal with. That is the way it has to go.”

The fear of injury before a major tournament is nothing new, with the end of a campaign often a nervous period for players ahead of a summer competition.

But the mid-season element of this World Cup, combined with the hectic club calendar, has heightened tensions.

“I didn’t talk on this subject with them, but I’m pretty sure they have one eye and are thinking about the World Cup,” said City manager Pep Guardiola on Friday. “Unfortunately many players got injured and will miss the World Cup, it’s a big blow for them.

“It’s just two or three weeks before the end. It’s the last effort. I’d always advise them to be ready for the World Cup, don’t get injured, be focused and play your maximum in the game. When you lose your attention you are at risk.”

United and Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen says he will not allow himself to be distracted.

“I think for every footballer it’s the same,” he said this week. “There’s something in six games’ time, but until then we’ll be focused on the next game. There’s five or six games before the World Cup so you need to be in good shape."

Southgate’s prediction that he would lose more members of his squad has already come to fruition with James.

No matter how focused players are, the potential for more scenes like Varane at Stamford Bridge feels likely.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

James Robson, The Associated Press