With the Europa League qualifiers a little over three weeks away, there’s been talk from Jeff Shi concerning the importance of the U23s.
With that mind, here I assess both the state of the current squad and what positions the U23s might be called upon to fill.
Nothing doing here. Rui Patricio is our undoubted no.1, while John Ruddy and Will Norris are more than capable back-ups.
But a mention for highly-rated Andreas Søndergaard, who was handed a new deal in January until 2021. Head of Academy Scott Sellars rates the Dane’s distribution skills highly, so he could become our no.3 if Ruddy or Norris depart.
Willy Boly, Conor Coady and Ryan Bennett all had a full summer off, and a further centre back is being targeted for Bennett’s position, so this is another area that could be tough for the U23s to crack.
However, the versatility of Romain Saiss is currently being used at the African Cup of Nations, so Max Kilman could feature on the bench at least, especially if another centre half hasn’t joined by the end of July (let’s hope this isn’t the case).
Regarding Kilman, Nuno sees the former England futsal international as a full member of the first-team squad, so the 22-year-old should have no problem dealing with Crusaders or B36 Tórshavn.
P.S. almost forgot that Rodders Miranda is still at the club after an unsuccessful loan spell with Olympiacos last season. Could he have a role to play in the qualifiers? Can we even get rid of him? I, for one, still appreciate his quality on the ball, after enduring Danny Batth hoofs for years. Anyhow, I digress.
In the wing back positions, Jonny and Ruben Vinagre on the left mean Ryan Giles will more than likely seal a mooted loan move to Shrewsbury Town, but things are a little unclear as for back-up to Doc.
I think we all agree that we’d like cover brought in for Doc, but I struggle to see it happening. Adama Traore could certainly cause havoc from deep in the second qualifying round, but if Nuno wanted to call upon an U23, what about Oskar Buur Rasmussen? Unfortunately, I doubt it, especially as he’s not been seen since stepping up as the unlikely hero in that crucial 2-2 draw at home to Hull City in April 2018.
I wonder if one of Elliot Watt or Pedro Goncalves will have a chance of featuring in the qualifiers, especially in the second and (hopefully) third rounds, when we play weaker opposition?
Both sound on the ball, could one of them step in for Joao Moutinho in the second leg v Crusaders or B36 Tórshavn when we hopefully have a healthy lead from the first tie? Despite being in fantastic condition last season, Joao, nearly 33, may still find the Thursday-Sunday schedule tough going.
You’d imagine Morgan Gibbs-White would be the one to step in for the Portuguese maestro, but I could see Watt or Goncalves on the bench, especially with Saiss possibly still to return after his international exertions.
He doesn’t count as an U23 in the strictest sense of the word (despite the face he’s still only 21), but Bright Enobakhare has been thrown a lifeline.
Mexico are likely to reach the Gold Cup final on Monday (8 July), so that’s Raúl definitely out of the first leg. Diogo should be fit and firing but a back-up to the Portuguese doesn’t appear a priority, which quite frankly should be, as the 22-year-old is just as crucial as Raul to our unique style of play.
Noises from the club suggest Bright will get his chance in the qualifiers. Whilst it’s hard to see him cut out for where we’re heading as a club, he discovered a clinical edge in his stint at Coventry. Hopefully, he can take his chance against limited opposition.
In an ideal world, we’ll have signed a Raúl type to partner Diogo come 25 July, with Bright coming off the bench in the first leg, and possibly starting the second if we have a sizeable advantage. It shouldn’t matter too much against inferior opposition, but I don’t believe we’ll see the best of Bright alongside Diogo, as the front two struggle to function when we’re lacking that focal point in Raúl.
Niall Ennis may make the bench for the second leg if Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa have departed by that time, and Raúl isn’t risked.
Jeff’s recent remarks sound positive for the U23s and our initial foray into Europe, but it’s hard to say how much of a chance they’ll be given.
Nuno is a fan of involving the youth in training and in cup competitions such as the Carabao, but the squad might have been greatly strengthened by 25 July, and we know Nuno is using the qualifiers as pre-season friendlies, so will the U23s even feature if we’re 6-0 up after the first leg?
I feel they won’t get extensive minutes, apart from Bright, but the odd substitute appearance and being around the squad in China and the qualifiers will be a great learning experience.