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Ronaldo fitness race as WCup playoffs loom

NOW that Portugal has made it to the World Cup playoffs, the big question is whether Cristiano Ronaldo will make it, too.

The game's most expensive footballer, world player of the year and Real Madrid star is hoping to recover from an ankle injury in time for the playoff games on Nov. 14 and 18. If not, he and his country could miss out on the sport's showcase event in South Africa next year.

Portugal will find out its playoff opponent on Monday. That gives Ronaldo a month to get fit enough to take part in the two games that will decide the team's World Cup fate.

Portugal could be matched against Ukraine, Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Slovenia in the draw in Zurich. Although Portugal should be capable of beating any of them, the absence of Ronaldo could be crucial for a nation which has never reached the World Cup final, let alone won the title.

Ronaldo limped off during Saturday's 3-0 victory over Hungary and missed Wednesday's 4-0 triumph over Malta. According to Real Madrid, he severely sprained his right ankle and will be out of action for up to four weeks - leaving it tight for the playoffs.

To any player, an ankle injury is a problem. To a winger like Ronaldo, who relies so much on his pace, balance and shooting power, it is even more of a blow. He has to be sure the injury won't flare up again when he is chasing a pass at full speed or making his trademark multiple stepovers.

If Ronaldo returns to the team too early, he could do more damage to the joint and that could sideline him for a lot longer. Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, who came under fire for his team's poor form during the early rounds of qualifying, may have to field a side capable of beating his playoff opponents without risking Ronaldo's fitness.

Lingering behind their group rivals for up to a year, the hugely talented but unpredictable Portuguese - who reached the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup and were runners-up to Greece at Euro 2004 - looked like they would miss out on South Africa. They only made it to the runners-up playoffs by winning their last three group games.

Until then, they had not won at home, losing once to eventual group winner Denmark and drawing 0-0 with Albania and Sweden.

Bearing in mind Portugal has talented stars such as Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Simao Sabrosa, Nani and Ronaldo in the lineup, the uninspiring performances have led to suggestions that they can't play together as a team.

There is also the question of Ronaldo's form at national team level.

Ronaldo in a Portugal shirt doesn't seem to have the same impact as at club level. He didn't contribute a single goal to their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign.

But he is proven matchwinner whether the ball is at his feet in a run toward goal or when he lines up a long-range free kick. If he doesn't get the chance to display his talents at the 2010 World Cup it will be a major blow to his ego, no matter how well he is playing for Real Madrid.

If Portugal fails to qualify, it could be a World Cup without those bending, dipping 30-meter free kicks and the fast, memorizing dribbles and shots that have brought him so many goals for Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Having said that, it also means being spared defenders accusing him of diving to get a free kick or a penalty.

Not to mention all those irritating stepovers.


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