Football Features

Euro 2020 Race to Fitness: Expert insight on key players’ health status

By Dr Rajpal Brar

Published: 11:35, 23 March 2021

With Euro 2020 on the not-so-distant horizon (matches begin on June 11th), the race to fitness for injured players is beginning to heat up.

So, sorting by country, sports scientist Dr Rajpal Brar has analysed injuries to key players to give us a clearer picture of possible availability, combing through the latest injury updates and providing his expert insight.

Belgium

Axel Witsel

Borussia Dortmund’s midfield maestro suffered an Achilles rupture in mid-January and will almost certainly miss the Euros, which is a significant blow for Belgium’s title hopes. The midfielder will hope to return for Dortmund’s pre-season and gradually re-find his form and fitness. For more on the injury itself, watch my explainer.

Eden Hazard

The Real Madrid man recently suffered his 11th injury since joining the club in 2019, with the most recent a strain of the “poses major” muscle that’s responsible for flexing the hip and trunk. Hazard has been ruled out for four weeks but has suffered through a string of injuries that leave his status for this summer very much in doubt, both in terms of availability and form (to learn six reasons that potentially underlie the player’s recent injury woes, click here).

Furthermore, Hazard and his entourage are currently at an impasse with Real Madrid and their medical staff as the former are pushing for surgery to remove a plate that was inserted into the Belgian’s troublesome ankle after it showed insufficient healing last season. The player and entourage maintain that Hazard has never felt comfortable since that surgery which has led to changes in his movement patterns, resulting in the string of muscular injuries, while Real Madrid’s medical staff see the surgery as too risky overall and not the root cause of his problems.

If Hazard does go against medical advice and opt for surgery, he’s set to miss the rest of the season and not be available for Euros.

Netherlands

Virgil van Dijk

The Dutch centre-back at the heart of Liverpool’s defence has been missing from action since mid-October when he suffered, at minimum, a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and underwent surgery. The beginning of the European Championships in mid-June would mark eight months of physio which is a feasible comeback timeline considering the the average return to play for elite footballers following ACL surgery is eight to nine months, but I’d be very surprised if Van Dijk is dropped immediately into a high intensity environment of the Euros after a long-term injury. Furthermore, recent research shows that returning prior to nine months from an ACL injury results in nearly 7x higher risk of re-injury.

For those reasons, it’s more likely that Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool are aiming for a pre-season return. That timeline was recently echoed by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp as well. For more on the player’s recovery and return to play, check out my latest rehab update video.

Nathan Ake

Nathan Ake, another key Dutch defender, recently returned to Manchester City’s squad after missing 10 weeks with a leg injury, possibly a hamstring recurrence or a quadriceps/hip flexor issue. The 26-year-old has ample time to ramp up for this summer’s tournament but there’s always inherent concern for re-injury or compensatory injury after any muscle injury and extended absence, particularly if the injury was a hamstring recurrence.

England

Jordan Henderson

The Liverpool captain picked up a serious groin injury (most likely the adductors) that has ruled him out until mid-April at earliest. If the player does return and not pick up any setbacks (the adductors are notoriously sensitive for re-injury) then he will very likely feature in Gareth Southgate’s side this summer.

Jack Grealish

The Aston Villa dynamo and arguable PFA Player of the Year has been struggling with “shin discomfort” for about the last month. However, I don’t anticipate the issue to extend near Euros and even though he will need to regain his fitness, Grealish should be ready and fit to lead the line in the summer.

Joe Gomez

The English and Liverpool centre-back ruptured his left patellar tendon while on international duty in mid-October and had surgery to repair the tendon. Considering the seriousness of the injury (I’d argue one of, if not the, worst injury to return from) and typically extended return timeline of around 10 months, the player will almost assuredly be unavailable for the Three Lions this summer and very well may miss start of next season for Liverpool as well. Gomez’s extended timeline was reinforced by Klopp in a recent interview.

Harvey Barnes

The Leicester City winger picked up a knee injury vs Arsenal that was described by Brendan Rodgers as a “piece of bone that chipped off the knee” that required surgery. Based on further description from Rodgers, Barnes very likely had a piece of cartilage that chipped off and got loose into the knee joint (“a loose body”) that required arthroscopic surgery to remove it. His return timeline looks to be six to eight weeks so he should have enough time to be fit for Euros, if called upon.

Croatia

Marko Rog

The Croatia and Cagliari midfielder ruptured his ACL in late December and underwent a reconstruction. In normal cases, I’d almost assuredly rule him out for this summer but there seems to be a higher prevalence of teams in Italy who use an expedited return to play protocol that has player’s returning in six to seven months. Those protocols do come with higher re-injury rates and downstream consequences based on the early research so I’d be surprised to see the player back this summer, especially (as with Van Dijk) being dropped straight into a high intensity tournament.

Italy

Nicolo Zaniolo

To that point about expedited return to play in Italy, Roma starlet Nicolo Zaniolo returned in only six months from ACL rupture and proceeded to rupture his other ACL soon after. Zaniolo has returned to training for Roma and hopes to be back on the pitch by April, yet another relatively short return to play.

The question for him becomes (other than the inherent risks already discussed) is whether he will be called upon by Azzurri manager Roberto Mancini having missed the past season and with less than two months ramp up time heading into the Euros.

Hungary

Dominik Szoboszlai

RB Leipzig’s latest promising transfer is yet to play a game for his new team due to an adductor (groin) injury. The player had targeted February for his return date but that came and went and now manager Julian Nagelsmann has ruled him out for the rest of the season.

This situation is a good case in point about how sensitive and nagging adductor injuries can be and, even if Szoboszlai is able to field a clean bill of health heading into Hungary’s Euro campaign, questions about the player’s fitness levels and risk of further injury or compensatory injury will constantly be asked.

Austria

Julian Baumgartlinger

Bayer Leverkusen suffered a major blow when the Austrian captain went down in late January with an ACL injury that required surgery. The player will almost certainly miss Euro 2020 this summer but his club have shown a significant sign of good faith in the player’s talent, leadership, and determination to return by extending his contract after he picked up his injury.

Spain

Ansu Fati

Barcelona wonder-kid Ansu Fati picked up a meniscus injury in early November that was fortunately able to be repaired. Originally, the player was given a timeline of three to four months but reportedly suffered a setback during physio that has delayed his return. There have been rumours that the player underwent a second and even a third surgery but renowned Barcelona team surgeon Dr Ramon Cugat refuted that the player didn’t have a second surgery, let alone a third – rather Fati underwent biological restorative treatments to help expedite and reinforce the healing process.

Currently, the player’s return timeline is set around April but it’s difficult to gauge if or when he will be back, considering his extended return and long-term career potential. If Fati does indeed return in April and is able to ramp up effectively, he has a chance of playing this summer. Otherwise, I imagine the risk/reward calculation leans too much towards risk for a player of his age and importance to both domestic club and international team.


We will, of course, learn more about the player’s odds of returning as we inch closer to the start of the Euros and hopefully there aren’t any more significant ones to cover in that time.

Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.