It was a largely unremarkable night for Manchester City, especially as their centre-forward is making the extraordinary seem everyday. Another two goals for Erling Haaland put Pep Guardiola’s side on the verge of qualifying for the Champions League knock-out stages at a canter. Haaland now has a barely credible 19 in his last 12 games. Copenhagen’s goalkeeper Kamil Grabara was left asking Jack Grealish if his teammate is human.
So far, so standard for the outstanding season that City, powered by Haaland’s goals, are threatening to put together. Yet at the end of a routine 5-0 win, there was one post-match revelation which may have consequences beyond the Etihad.
With only 45 days to go before the start of the World Cup, Guardiola confirmed that Kyle Walker had missed the game and the previous day’s training session with a groin injury that is likely to keep him sidelined for “weeks”. Exactly how many weeks, he could not say. “It will be for a while. I don’t know exactly but weeks. Maybe the club will make a statement in the next days.”
City later confirmed that Walker had undergone surgery on the problem. His absence is far from ideal for City, even if his form has yo-yoed somewhat at the start of the campaign. But if serious, the injury is argubaly even worse news for England.
Walker’s chances of playing in Qatar have not been completely ruled out but hang in the balance. Given the short timeframe between now and the start of the tournament, much depends on the initial stage of his recovery.
The 32-year-old has become an integral part of Gareth Southgate’s set-up, not least for his years of experience at international level. Walker earned his 70th cap in the 3-3 draw with Germany last month. In Wolverhampton back in June, Southgate described Walker as one of the squad’s standard bearers in unprompted comments that all but confirmed he would be part of any squad for Qatar, barring injury.
“I think he’s matured a lot over the last two or three years,” Southgate said. “He doesn’t have to be really vocal but his manner, his determination in the way he works… That hunger, that drive and he brings that and he brings that on the training pitch.”
It was Walker’s versatility and recovery pace that enabled England to play the three-at-the-back system which Southgate dipped into at Euro 2020 and now appears to prefer in the build-up to Qatar. Despite the well-publicised depth of options at right-back, no rival for the City full-back’s place has the same athleticism. Eric Dier's recall gives Southgate new options in a back three but Walker remains crucial, as he has been since an 18-month international exodus was ended by a recall in 2020.
It might be that his importance to England is deemed great enough to name him in the squad regardless, as Southgate did with Harry Maguire during his recovery from an ankle injury before Euro 2020. Yet even the threat of him missing out is a reminder of the unique challenges that this mid-season World Cup presents.
The quicker turnaround between the hectic club schedule and tournament football means a greater risk of players carrying problems and less time for recovery. Walker is not the first pre-World Cup injury headache for Southgate - with his City team-mates Kalvin Phillips and John Stones also on the treatment table for shoulder and hamstring problems respectively - and he is unlikely to be the last.
Success at international tournaments is about catching lightning in a bottle. Not only do a generation of players need to peak at the right time in a four-year cycle, they also need to stay fit. One of the under-appreciated elements of England’s run to the Euro 2020 final was the relatively clean bill of health that Southgate’s squad enjoyed along the way.
There were issues. Maguire missed the opening games with that aforementioned ankle problem but returned to be named one of the players of the tournament. Phil Foden sat out of the final with a foot problem that sidelined him beyond the start of the following season, while Mason Mount missed two games as an unfortunate close contact of the Covid-positive Billy Gilmour.
But in each case, the absences were limited to a handful of games and the few injuries were among those on the fringes of the squad. By and large, Southgate could select his first-choice line-up. The only high-profile absentee to miss the entire tournament was Trent Alexander-Arnold, who withdrew with a thigh issue during the warm-up friendlies. In hindsight, it is hard to imagine he would have featured prominently even if fully fit.
A year and a half later, it would be a twist of fate if Alexander-Arnold proved to be the inadvertent beneficiary of Walker’s misfortune. Southgate can only wait and hope that a key member of his squad is able to recover.