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Mikel, Robben are new injury curse victims

By Alison Wildey

LONDON (Reuters) - The curse of the pre-World Cup injury struck again on Saturday when Nigeria midfielder John Obi Mikel was ruled out of the finals with a severely bruised ankle and Dutch winger Arjen Robben hurt his hamstring.

Mikel joined a casualty list which includes Chelsea team mates Michael Essien of Ghana, out with a knee injury, and Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba who is a major doubt for the finals in South Africa which start on Friday due to a fractured elbow.

The trio of injuries mean the first finals to be held in Africa could be missing three of the continent's best-known players.

Mikel, 23, was hurt on his first day back in full training following a knee problem.

"He had been complaining about a niggle in the ankle when we first arrived in South Africa but after training yesterday it really flared up," said Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) spokesman Idah Peterside.

"He is not sure how it happened. It wasn't a tackle with another player or anything like that."

Elsewhere, former Chelsea winger Robben's World Cup hopes will depend on the outcome of a scan after he was injured during Netherlands's 6-1 friendly thrashing of Hungary.

Robben, who hobbled off two minutes from time, has not travelled to South Africa with the rest of the Dutch squad.

"My first thought was this can't be true, the end of the final warm-up match, everyone is fit and then this," said coach Bert van Marwijk.

"We now have to wait. I can replace Robben until 24 hours before our opening match but as long as there is hope he recovers in time he will stay in the squad."

The Dutch open their campaign on June 14 against Denmark.

Japan go into the tournament on the back of a four-match losing streak and their problems deepened when defender Yasuyuki Konno was ruled out of the opening game against Cameroon on June 14 because of an injury to his right knee.

"He's probably looking at two weeks (out). He is walking normally now but it's best not to risk him for the first game," said coach Takeshi Okada.

RESERVE INCLUDED

Last-minute preparations did not go to plan for holders Italy who, after losing 2-1 to Mexico on Thursday, could only manage a 1-1 draw against Switzerland, or Australia, beaten 3-1 by the U.S.

A mainly second-string Italian side included Andrea Cossu for the first half even though the midfielder is not in the official World Cup squad. Andrea Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi could pull out through injury though.

"It was an encouraging performance, we are getting better," said Italy coach Marcello Lippi. "In South Africa we will continue our programme to try to recapture our shine and speed."

Angelo Palombo went off clutching his knee and is due to have checks while fellow midfielder Claudio Marchisio has a minor calf problem.

Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami was substituted with a suspected groin problem.

Australia coach Pim Verbeek was concerned his team gave the ball away too much during their defeat.

"The organization was not good, the first goal was a present ... I think we need to keep the ball better as a team," said Verbeek.

Striker Edson Buddle opened the scoring in the fourth minute with a well-placed drive.

The U.S. play England in their World Cup opener on June 12 and Australia play Germany a day later.

FIFA organizers have also chosen Uzbekistan's Ravshan Irmatov to referee the opening World Cup match between South Africa and Mexico at Soccer City in Johannesburg on Friday.

(Editing by Tony Jimenez)