Reds look to Euros as Van Gaal hopes for injury-free break
International week. Where football goes to die – or at least to a place where lengthy bouts of apathy dominate. Indeed, the qualification process for Euro 2016 has been almost without drama of any form. After all, with 24 nations qualifying from 56 hopefuls, the process has been, well, a touch easier to negotiate than in the past – albeit a test that Netherlands failed, leaving Memphis Depay and Daley Blind to enjoy the beach next summer.
The top two from nine groups automatically qualified, while the ‘best of the rest’, Turkey, will also be in France. Most of the usual suspects made it, together with a few ‘minnows’ who made the tournament for the first time, including Iceland, Albania and Slovakia.
England coasted through qualification, securing 10 wins from as many games – and will almost certainly reach the tournament quarter-finals, only to be knocked out the aforementioned Icelanders on penalties.
Wales and Northern Ireland also made it to the finals in France next summer. The Principality has not qualified for a major tournament since 1958, while the Irish have waited for 34 years since the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where Norman Whiteside made his international début aged 17 years and 41 days.
Up to 15 United players could be at the Euros, including Anthony Martial and Morgan Schneiderlin for the hosts. Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Michael Carrick expect to make Roy Hodgson’s England squad, fitness and form permitting. Ashley Young remains an outside bet for a place in Hodgson’s party, while Luke Shaw still retains a distant hope of recovering from a broken leg.
Elsewhere, Juan Mata and David De Gea will almost certainly be in Vincente del Bosque’s Spain squad next summer, although Ander Herrera will probably miss out unless the 25-year-old enjoys an outstanding second half of the season. He is yet to win a full cap.
Then there is Bastian Schweinsteiger, who will captain World Champions Germany, while Matteo Darmian is now first choice right-back for Italy, and Marouanne Fellaini will enjoy a place in Marc Wilmots’s Belgium squad. Adnan Januzaj could well make the Red Devils’ party too, although the youngster has not been involved of late. Patrick McNair has featured five times for Northern Ireland this season, including the Norn Iron’s draw away in Finland last month, and is likely to travel.
Former Reds Jonny Evans, Gerard Pique, Patrice Evra, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo will also feature in the tournament, which begins in Paris on 10 June 2016.
So to the play-offs, where eight hopefuls must negotiate a two-legged play-off over the next week. Although no Manchester United are players involved, former Red John O’Shea features in Republic of Ireland’s double-header with Bosnia & Herzegovina, first in Zenica on Friday night and then Dublin next Tuesday.
Many others from Louis van Gaal’s squad take part in largely meaningless friendlies before the Reds meet Watford at Vicarage Road in 10 days’ time. It leaves Van Gaal waiting on a good injury report, and United supporters hoping that Rooney’s metatarsal
snaps holds up in a tournament year.
On Friday, Rooney’s England faces Spain at Alicante’s Estadio Jose Rico Perez, although the captain is set to sit out the fixture. Whether Rooney’s demotion is made on the basis of rank awful form, or Hodgson’s assertion that he needs to rest his main striker, is open to interpretation.
“Obviously as a player you want to play football but you sometimes have to look at the bigger picture with the Euros approaching,” said Rooney, who recently passed Sir Bobby Charlton’s English national team goalscoring record. “We know we have a good, exciting squad of players, but also a young squad with room to improve. We need to improve if we are to compete at the tournament. That is what we are trying to do – to get to that next level that would give us a chance to win.”
De Gea faces competition from Iker Cassisa for a starting spot – despite the latter’s three-year-long run of poor form – while Mata is competing for a place in a star-studded midfield that includes Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Koke, Cesc Fàbregas, Santi Cazorla and Thiago Alcântara. Manchester City’s David Silva is injured or the challenge for Mata would be greater still. It is a list of talent that puts England’s run of good qualifying results, in a weak group, into some perspective.
Despite starting on the bench in Spain, Rooney could feature against France at Wembley next Tuesday where Evra, now 34, will undoubtedly enjoy the chance to take on his former team-mates. And to land one on Rooney, Reds’ of a crueller persuasion might add. Evra’s side also takes on Schweinsteiger’s Germany in Paris on Friday.
Meanwhile, in Cardiff, Danny Blind’s Netherlands team meets a much improved Wales, with Memphis included in the visitors’ party despite the 21-year-old being initially left out of the Dutch squad. Manager Blind cited the player’s inability to “function in a team” – a damning conclusion with which many at Old Trafford will agree.
Exclusion and reintegration caps a difficult couple of months for Memphis, who has also spent much of the autumn on the sidelines at Old Trafford, and faced criticism from media, fans and prominent Dutch pundits. It is a situation winger Arjen Robben says is common for young players.
“Of course I will give him advice,” said the 31-year-old this week. “We try to help each other as players and the team to make steps. He is a talented player in a difficult situation, I can give him advice but the player has to cope with it, show strength and the right mentality. It’s not always sunshine, especially when you are young.”
Elsewhere in Europe Fellaini’s Belgium meets Italy and Spain in friendlies. Fellaini may be Van Gaal’s principal ‘Plan B’ these days, but the midfielder remains an integral part of the Red Devils‘ outfit. He’ll also face team-mate Darmian, who has started all five of Italy’s fixtures since June. Belgium also host Spain, while Italy welcome Romania, and – in one of the tastier fixtures of the week – Netherlands travel to Germany this week.
Globally, Sergio Romero was due to start Argentina’s World Cup 2018 qualifier against Brazil at Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires, only for the game to be rained out on Thursday and rescheduled for Friday. Marcos Rojo also starts is,although Antonio Valencia misses Ecuador’s trip to Venezuela next Tuesday through injury.
United also boasts some international representatives at youth level. The England under-21s team drew 0-0 with Bosnia on Thuesday with a squad that contained no United players – Jesse Lingard now too old and James Wilson injured. Although in younger age groups Ashley Fletcher received a first international call-up to the England under-20 squad, while Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was selected for the under-19s. Borthwick-Jackson enjoyed a late cameo against West Bromwich Albion for his club first team debut. Meanwhile, Portuguese-born Angel Gomes is included in the England Under-16 squad.
All of which adds up to an empty Carrington and a coach hoping on good news when his players return to Manchester next Thursday.