Ballack made only his second start for Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday since a broken leg kept him out of football since September, but was replaced after 67 minutes in his team’s 1-0 German league defeat at 10-man Nuremberg.

He was visibly upset at Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes’ decision to replace him with Swiss striker Eren Derdiyok.

It looks increasingly as though Ballack is playing for his international place with whispers growing Germany coach Joachim Loew may no longer need his former captain.

On Friday, Loew opted to leave Ballack out of the 22-man squad to face the 2006 World Cup winners in Dortmund for Wednesday’s friendly.

Short of fitness, and with Germany having reached the semi-finals at last year’s World Cup without him, Loew has said he will discuss Ballack’s future with him before next month’s Euro 2012 qualifier with Kazakhstan.

Ballack suffered a fall from grace last year when Chelsea declined to extend his contract and he returned to the Bundesliga to sign for Leverkusen in July, but the 34-year-old needs to impress the national coach.

“We all know that Michael was still missing something after he played his first 90 minutes following a long injury,” Loew had told German daily Bild.

“He is still finding his rhythm and he has made a good impression. If everything runs accordingly, we will meet in the middle of March to look at what the next step is.”

While Ballack was recovering from the damaged ankle ligaments he suffered last May, Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira and Bayern’s Bastian Schweinsteiger forged a strong partnership in Germany’s midfield at the World Cup.

Without warrior Ballack to boss the midfield, Loew used fleet-footed wingers Thomas Mueller of Bayern and Real’s Mesut Ozil to inject pace.

Combined with some clinical finishing, Germany ripped England and Argentina to pieces before falling to Spain in the semi-finals.

Football-mad Germany was distraught at the loss of Ballack in May, but by the end of the World Cup in July, pundits were suggesting perhaps the injury was a blessing in disguise and questioning whether the ex-captain was needed.

Ballack has not played for Germany since the pre-World Cup 1-0 defeat to Argentina last March.

If he is to return, the Euro 2012 qualifier with Kazakhstan on March 26 or the friendly with Australia three days later are his next chances to add to his 98 caps.

Ballack’s relationship with Loew has had its ups and downs.

In 2008, he openly criticised the coach for dropping veteran Torsten Frings by saying the trainer was not showing his players enough loyalty.

Having led Germany to the Euro 2008 final a few months before, Ballack was Germany’s star player, Loew needed his captain to guarantee the Germans’ berth at the 2010 World Cup and the matter was resolved after the player apologised.

But now Ballack is no longer so important to the German team.

“For the moment there is no contact with Loew,” Ballack has said. “I have to keep putting in good performances with Leverkusen first. The coach will then decide how things will go.” - AFP