It's that time of the World Cup year again. Coaches, players and fans alike will be hoping for no last-minute injury hiccups. Unfortunately for David Beckham, it's too late. Becks, as most of the world knows by now, ruptured his Achilles in March and was ruled out of this summer's showpiece.
These stars are either close to returning, sweating on their fitness or out altogether:
Gianluigi Buffon, GK, Juventus and Italy
Things aren't going too well at the "Old Lady" of Italian soccer. Juventus crashed to a 3-0 loss at slumping Udinese last weekend, and reports in Italy suggest the players won't get paid until their performances improve. A thigh injury to Buffon, sustained at the end of February, hasn't helped. Buffon originally thought he'd miss only a week, but he didn't return by the end of March. He remains questionable for this weekend's game against Cagliari, too. Buffon isn't in danger of missing out on the World Cup, which is good news for the Azzurri. The 32-year-old is still considered the best keeper around and played a big role -- five clean sheets and a slew of key saves -- as Italy surprisingly won the 2006 World Cup. He'll need to shine again if Italy is to repeat.
Wayne Rooney, F, Manchester United and England
When Rooney went down clutching his right foot in the dying minutes of a 2-1 Champions League loss at Bayern Munich last week, a nation held its breath. Was he about to suffer another injury blow on the eve of a World Cup and join Beckham on the sidelines? No, as it turned out. "No bone damage or serious ligament damage," United manager Alex Ferguson told reporters. "The nation can stop praying."
The ankle problem kept a sizzling Rooney out of last Saturday's crucial loss to Chelsea, though he was rushed back for the second leg against Bayern at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Call it a double blow, since Rooney limped off and United exited on away goals. Rooney won't suit up against Blackburn on Sunday; he's being saved for the Manchester derby a week later instead. If it has any chance of finally winning a second World Cup, England needs a fit Rooney. He's more valuable to England than Lionel Messi to Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo to Portugal and Buffon to Italy.
Michael Essien, M, Chelsea and Ghana
Many a pundit has said Essien is just as important to the Blues as Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry. No disagreeing there. Essien is ultra versatile and fills in admirably for Lampard going forward whenever the latter is absent. Essien hasn't featured for Chelsea, though, since early December, when he tore a hamstring. A month later at the African Cup of Nations, Essien hurt his left knee in training and subsequently underwent multiple surgeries.
It's unknown exactly when he'll come back, although Essien seemed to think at the end of March he was almost ready. "The healing has taken a bit longer than expected because my knee kept swelling up," Essien was quoted as saying by ESPNsoccernet. Essien sparkled in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, Ghana's debut, missing out in the second round due to an accumulation of yellow cards. Without Essien, a sloppy Ghana fell 3-0 to Brazil.
Oguchi Onyewu, D, A.C. Milan and United States
It's not easy bouncing back from an unproductive stint at a high-profile club in England, but that's what the towering central defender did in the wake of his loan spell at Newcastle in 2007. Onyewu put in more good time at Standard Liege and excelled at last year's Confederations Cup, when the U.S. stunned World Cup favorite Spain to reach the final. A.C. Milan came calling, and Onyewu got the move he wanted.
A serious knee injury while on international duty in October -- two weeks after making his Rossoneri debut -- has rendered him mostly a spectator. No one knows precisely whether Onyewu, like U.S. striker Charlie Davies, will be fit, or fit enough, to play in South Africa. An A.C. Milan spokesman, who didn't wish to be identified, told ESPN.com Wednesday: "He might return at the end of the season, but we still don't know." The spokesman added Onyewu wasn't back in full training. U.S. coach Bob Bradley can use Watford's Jay DeMerit and the versatile Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes) in the center if Onyewu is unavailable.
Salvador Cabanas, F, Club America and Paraguay
Cabanas, Paraguay's catalyst up front, insisted he'd be back on the pitch soon despite getting shot in the head in a Mexico City bar in late January. Alas, there's no fairy-tale ending, at least from a soccer perspective. Club America doctor Alfonso Diaz told reporters last week it could be 18 months before he returns. "He certainly has recovered his functions, but will not be eligible to play football for a long time," Diaz said.
So, Paraguay boss Gerardo Martin will rely on Roque Santa Cruz and Benfica's Oscar Cardozo. A lengthy calf injury has affected Santa Cruz's first season at Manchester City, and now that he's back, he can't usurp Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor. Still, he possesses a wealth of experience (think Bayern Munich). Cardozo has scored 19 goals, good for second, in Portugal's Liga, part of a lethal attacking trio that includes Argentineans Angel di Maria and Pablo Aimar. Cardozo is being linked with a big-money move to Spain or England in the summer.
Robin van Persie, F, Arsenal and Netherlands
When club managers say they despise friendlies, this is the reason -- van Persie, hugely influential at Arsenal, suffered a serious ankle injury in November when he was crunched by Italy's no-nonsense defender Giorgio Chiellini. Van Persie stepped up his rehab, reportedly even flying to Serbia for treatment involving horse placentas, and in late March, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hinted van Persie might feature by the end of April.
Talented as they are, the Dutch can't do without van Persie, who's outstanding on free kicks. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has flopped at A.C. Milan, Dirk Kuyt went from goal scorer to hard-working winger when he joined Liverpool, and Ryan Babel can hardly get a game at Anfield. Ruud van Nistelrooy is back in contention, intent on coming out of international retirement and rejuvenated at Hamburg. "[Van Persie] is a very important player for me, so it is very important that he is fit," Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk told reporters in March.
William Gallas, D, Arsenal and France
National team managers can get mad at club bosses, too. France's bumbling Raymond Domenech tore into Wenger after Gallas, an experienced starter with Les Bleus, reinjured his calf in the Champions League against Barcelona last week. "I'm livid and pissed off," Domenech let it be known. "It's outrageous and irresponsible to have played him so early after the injury. It's scandalous. He'd better be fit for the World Cup." And that remains to be seen. Following the game March 31, Wenger forecast a five-week absence for Gallas, which means it's touch and go.
Ashley Cole, D, Chelsea and England
Cole isn't exactly Mr. Popular in England, thanks to his alleged infidelity. Meanwhile, his wife (for the time being), pop star Cheryl Cole (I'll avoid using "singer") is much loved. So sweet she is. But Ashley can boost his popularity with a good showing in South Africa. Cole broke his left ankle against Everton on Feb. 10, and could possibly make his return against rugged Stoke on April 25. Cole remains one of the best left backs in the world, miles ahead of his potential replacements on the England squad.
Cesc Fabregas, M, Arsenal and Spain
The Gunners have had no luck with injuries this season. Did anyone really expect Arsenal to pull off an upset at Barcelona on Tuesday without Fabregas, Gallas, van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and Alex Song, arguably the team's most valuable player this campaign? Somehow the league title is still within grasp. Fabregas will play no further part, however, having injured his knee against Birmingham on March 27, then making things worse by playing against boyhood team Barcelona four days later, when he cracked his right fibula via getting kicked by Carles Puyol. Fabregas aims to be fit for the Cup. He's not a certain starter with Spain, so if he does miss out, label it a minor loss. Spain manager Vicente del Bosque has the likes of Xavi, David Silva, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Marcos Senna in a packed midfield.
Didier Drogba, F, Chelsea and Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast, and new boss Sven-Goran Eriksson, can ill afford to lose Drogba, especially with Brazil and Portugal in the same group. Drogba has been dealing with a hernia problem that may require surgery at the end of the season, and a knee injury also cropped up recently. He didn't start against United. Let's see if he starts against Aston Villa in the F.A. Cup semifinals Saturday.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.