LIVERPOOL -- Phil Jagielka is out of Everton’s Premier League showdown with Arsenal on Sunday as manager Roberto Martinez feels it would be a “fatal gamble” to rush him back.
The club captain is recovering from a hamstring problem and has not played since sustaining the injury in a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on February 22.
Jagielka is set to be a part of England’s World Cup squad this summer, and any recurrence of the injury could put his place on the plane to Brazil in jeopardy.
Martinez insists that factor is not the driving force behind his decision to delay the 31-year-old’s comeback but he acknowledges that taking risks with the centre-back’s fitness at this stage of the season could harm Everton as much as England.
The manager told his prematch news conference: “We need to be very, very careful with Phil. It’s an injury we need to make sure doesn’t recur.
“He’s still doing his individual programme and the medical department is not ready to allow him to join the group to be in the squad. So I don’t think he’s going to be available for this week, and we need to play safe with Phil.
“He’s played a lot of football, and the concern is that, even though he’s ready to step up, we need to be careful. I think I rushed him back for one game this season, and that was because we had to. We had nobody else able to play.
“We need to be careful. Sometimes you can take a controlled gamble. I think at this stage of the season, it would be a fatal gamble to put Phil in a situation he’s not fully match-fit for, and potentially having to cope with a possible soft tissue injury.
“I want Phil to be 100 percent before I put him on the pitch. That will help the team, it will help him, and it will make sure he is available for the summer. But it’s not about having the World Cup in mind, it’s about the well-being of the player.”
A run of five successive league wins has pushed Everton to within four points of fourth-placed Arsenal.
Martinez’s side have a game in hand on the Gunners too, and a home win on Sunday would boost the manager’s prospects of bringing Champions League football to Goodison Park next season.
Midfielder Ross Barkley is on course to play despite coming off with a calf problem at half-time during last Sunday’s 3-1 win at Fulham.
Martinez said: “Ross has had two very good days since the incident last Sunday. We’re going to assess him today.
“I hope that he can join the group today or tomorrow. At the moment, we’re very positive that he should be available for the squad on Sunday.”
On the long-term injury front, midfielder Darron Gibson is set to return to action before the end of the season, having been out since suffering cruciate knee ligament damage while playing for the Republic of Ireland against Kazakhstan in a World Cup qualifier on Oct. 15.
Left-back Bryan Oviedo has returned to Merseyside after having treatment in his native Costa Rica on the broken leg sustained during the 4-0 FA Cup fourth-round win at Stevenage on Jan. 25, and could yet be fit for the World Cup, according to Martinez.
The manager does not yet have a return date for midfielder Steven Pienaar, who has had minor surgery on the knee problem that forced him off during the 4-1 FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Arsenal on March 8.
And Martinez added that striker Arouna Kone, out since October with a knee injury, will not play again this season.
But the manager believes his squad can cope with the demands of a Champions League push even with those key players absent.
And he reserved special praise for 19-year-old defender John Stones, who has filled in at centre-back while Jagielka has been out, and is likely to do so again on Sunday.
The England Under-21 international, signed from Championship side Barnsley for three million pounds in January 2013, is an outside contender for Roy Hodgson’s senior World Cup squad.
Martinez has played down that prospect, but believes Stones will be unfazed by any challenges that come his way.
He said: “John Stones, in my eyes, is the complete modern centre-half. He is someone who can defend in one-on-one situations, he is very good in the air, he can start the play, he’s got the composure to get on the ball. He’s a phenomenal prospect.
“It’s fair to say that this season, he’s played a lot of games. I think he’s played more than 20 games in different competitions. That’s an incredible achievement for a young man, at the age of 19, as a centre-half, where it’s always harder to break into the first team at an early age.
“But we need to give him a bit of breathing space and let him enjoy his football a bit more before we put the pressure of a World Cup call-up on him.”