With the 2016 UEFA European Championship set to begin in France on June 10th-just under three months from today-the time is winding down before national team coaches will have to finalize their squads for the event. This process, of course, is always something of a challenge. After all, how do you narrow down an entire country's worth of football talent into one 23-man squad? How do you select the players who are most likely to win you a title? How do you cut so much deserving talent? Suffice to say that this particular job is not a national team manager's most enviable task.
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England's Looming Injury Problem
This year, injuries could be a huge determining factor behind which players we see on the pitch in France-particularly for England, whose top clubs have been riddled with hurt players all season long. The Three Lions were incredible in the qualifiers for Euro 2016, bouncing back from a dismal 2014 World Cup performance to win all 10 of their qualifying matches.
That perfect qualifying streak saw England scoring 31 goals and conceding just three. Captain Wayne Rooney led the way with seven goals while Danny Welbeck trailed just behind him with six. Harry Kane, Theo Walcott, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere, and Raheem Sterling were all key as well, each of them scoring two or three goals across the 10 matches.
Now, though, England manager Roy Hodgson is looking at a situation where he might have to pick a squad without full assurances that many of his best players are healthy. Rooney has been out with a knee injury since Valentine's Day, with no date set for his return to the game. His absence has required Manchester United to start an 18-year-old academy player named Marcus Rashford as their center forward.
Rashford is green but talented. He scored braces in both of his first two senior matches with United, quickly becoming one of the most buzzed-about players in England. If Rooney can get fit in time, Hodgson has said he will definitely make the Euro 2016 squad. But if he can't, will Rashford be a strong substitute? Or will taking the Three Lions into battle without their captain be a death knell for the soccer team's once-promising title hopes?
If Rooney were the only player facing injury, Hodgson would be able to do damage control. But Rooney is just one of many chinks in England's armor at the moment. Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, and Manchester City-traditionally four of the Premier League's strongest, deepest teams-have had to sideline huge percentages of their starting lineups this season. United defender Luke Shaw, for instance, is working on getting back into the game following a broken leg.
For Liverpool and Arsenal, most of the injuries hit around the Premier League's ultra-busy Christmas period. A few months have passed since then, which means that most of the top players from both football clubs have recovered and are back on the pitch. Still, there are blows. From Liverpool, both Joe Gomez (defender) and Danny Ings (attacker) are out with ACL injuries until July. Neither have been key cogs for England's national team in the past (and Gomez hasn't even made his senior national team debut), but their injuries do reduce the pool of players that Hodgson has to pull from.
Arsenal injuries are more damning for England's Euro 2016 hopes. Jack Wilshere will make a return to the pitch this weekend, following eight months out for a fibula fracture. Hodgson is "keen to include Wilshere," according to The Guardian, but will the 24-year-old midfielder be ready to get back to full health by June?
Also injured at Arsenal is another midfielder: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The 22-year-old should be back in commission by mid-April, and his injury spell (which began on February 23rd) has been much briefer than Wilshere's. But Hodgson will have to assess relatively quickly whether or not Oxlade-Chamberlain is a smart choice for England's 23-man Euro football squad.
As for players who have already returned from injury spells, Danny Welbeck jumped back into Arsenal's squad in February, following more than nine months out with a knee injury. It bodes well that Welbeck promptly scored a goal in his first match back (a Valentine's Day battle with Leicester City), and that he drained another shot in a February 28th loss to Manchester United. Despite his lengthy absence, it looks like Welbeck will be ready to go when the Three Lions head off to France in June. Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge also recently made a return, following a two-month break for a hamstring injury.
At Manchester City, meanwhile, midfielder Fabian Delph is out with Achilles tendonitis. City have struggled with as many injuries as United, Liverpool, and Arsenal this season, but most of them struck non-English players like Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Vincent Company.
Of course, other Premier League teams haven't dodged injuries either. For example, Mauricio Pochettino has indicated that standout midfielder Dele Alli is currently playing through injuries at Tottenham Hotspur.
Planning for Euro 2016
The good news for Roy Hodgson and the England national football team is that, even if many Premier League stars may struggle to get back to 100% in time for Euro 2016, there are still options on the table. The 2015/16 has seen the emergence of new stars, from the continued growth of Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane to the record-setting scoring streak of Leicester City's Jamie Vardy. On the offensive side, Sunderland's Jermaine Defoe and Watford's Troy Deeney have also been impressive and would make good call-ups if Hodgson finds himself short on firepower.
Reports indicate that Hodgson will announce his 23-man squad for Euro 2016 on May 12th-just days before the end of the Premier League season. That will give England's many injured or just-recovered players a chance to get healthy and get fit, and will give the Three Lions coach a little under two months to mull over his plans. Hopefully, no more injuries will strike England's elite. Otherwise, the country's hopes of a first-ever European Championship victory could go up in smoke-likely bringing criticisms of England's extremely busy and competitive soccer schedule as a result.
Foreign Player Injuries
No other national team manager will have to think about injuries quite as much as Hodgson will, but that doesn't mean other countries won't have to rearrange their plans a bit, too. After all, other countries have players in the Premier League, too, and those players haven't been immune to the fatiguing nature of the division's soccer schedule.
Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne, for example, is currently on the disabled list at Manchester City with a knee ligament injury. Republic of Ireland defender Marc Wilson is also out with a knee injury and isn't expected to make his return to the Stoke City squad until mid-April. German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger is out with a knee injury and hasn't played a game at Manchester United since January. And West Bromwich Albion's Chris Brunt, a key cog in Northern Ireland's first Euro qualification in 30 years, just had reconstructive surgery for an ACL knee ligament injury. He won't play again until September.
Bottom line, the Premier League is a nation team manager's worst nightmare at this point. It's frequently been said that the league's busy regular season schedule-combined with the FA Cup, the League Cup, and European competitions-is just too much. Consider this: Bayern Munich-the home of star German national team players like Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze, and Manuel Neuer-didn't play a single game between December 19th and January 22nd. Manchester United, just to pick one of many injury-riddled English teams, played one game on December 19th, one game on January 23rd, and six matches in between. It's no wonder most of the injuries that could affect the outcome of Euro 2016 come from the Premier League.
Can England's stars recover enough by June to replicate the success of their Euro 2016 qualifiers? Or will the Three Lions have to wait until another year to grab another title? Hope for the former outcome, by stopping by Soccer Box today and picking up an official England national team jersey!