Quique Sanchez Flores faces a dilemma over his defensive bench cover for Saturday’s game with Manchester United if, as seems likely, Sebastian Prödl is ruled out through injury.
The Austrian central defender was taken off after just three minutes of his country’s friendly with Switzerland on Tuesday night with a calf problem. Not having played a minute of club football since the defeat to Arsenal, Prödl will have been keen to get minutes under his belt so the extent of the problem must have been severe if it forced him off so early.
Prödl was playing on Tuesday against Valon Behrami who, ironically, returned from the previous international break with a calf problem, one that rendered him only fit enough to be named on the bench for the following game against Arsenal.
Prödl returned to the club’s UCL training ground in London late yesterday afternoon and was immediately assessed by Richard Collinge and his medical team. The results of the scan will be discovered this morning and the prognosis given to Quique Sanchez Flores when he arrives for training. The head coach is not one to take risks with players and ideally likes them to have taken part in a full week’s training (or as much as possible during an international break) before they are even considered for selection.
On that basis, it is hard to see Prödl making the 18 for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off at Vicarage Road, leaving Sanchez Flores with a quandary over who to name on the bench as cover for Miguel Britos and Craig Cathcart. Tommie Hoban is still two weeks off the eight-week layoff he was prescribed after undergoing surgery to solve a hip and groin problem while Gabriele Angella is on loan at Queens Park Rangers. Joel Ekstrand is not even registered with the Premier League and has only just resumed very light training.
Essaid Belkalem therefore comes firmly into contention. Although he has not played for the first team since the 3-1 defeat at Charlton in April last year and would have been sold in the summer had a buyer been found, he has impressed with his willingness to play for the Under-21s. He played in the 3-0 defeat against Hull City, the 2-1 win at Nottingham Forest and, more recently, stood out in the 2-0 Premier League Cup win over Birmingham City at Clarence Park.
He is also a big-match player, producing arguably the performances of his career at the last World Cup, helping to push eventual winners Germany to extra time of their last 16 clash in Brazil. Belkalem has not been completely cast adrift by Sanchez Flores and was part of the 20-man party who traveled to Bournemouth last month. The head coach could also, conceivably, pitch Allan Nyom at centre-half and bring Juan Carlos Paredes if anything happened to Britos and Cathcart during the game.
More importantly, Sanchez Flores will be keen to get an assessment on the physical condition of Odion Ighalo when he returns tomorrow after a near seven-hour flight from Nigeria. The top-scorer played 180 minutes in four days for the Super Eagles and will have travelled more than 10,000 miles in representing his country in two World Cup qualifiers.
Jose Manuel Jurado has made good progress from a second injury he picked up and could come back into contention for the match day squad. He has not featured since smacking the underside of the bar against Crystal Palace.