There is something sadly appropriate about Bastian Schweinsteiger’s battle to prove his fitness for Germany’s Euro 2016 semi-final against France on Thursday evening and, at the same time, his generation game against the emerging force that is Paul Pogba.
Joachim Low’s captain did little to dispel the perception that he is fighting against the dying of the light during his hugely disappointing first 12 months at Manchester United last season, in which he managed a sum total of just 65 minutes of action for Louis van Gaal’s team after damaging ankle ligaments during the FA Cup third round victory over Sheffield United in early January.
At 31, Schweinsteiger has plenty of miles on the clock, and plenty of medals in his trophy cabinet too, but the sands of time are running out and it could be his encounter with Pogba in Marseille which sends those grains sliding further and faster than ever before.
If Jose Mourinho has his way, Pogba will be the dominant presence around which his United midfield will be built next season.
Van Gaal had the same plan in mind for Schweinsteiger having lured him from Bayern Munich last summer, but the German failed to perform for the man who acted as a mentor during his spell in charge at the Alianz Arena and, by the end of the campaign, had earned the scorn of his Old Trafford team-mates by disappearing from the scene during his injury lay-off.
The Premier League exposed Schweinsteiger’s lack of mobility and his spluttering engine, but nonetheless, he remains a prominent figure for the world champions and will anchor their midfield if he overcomes the knee problem that has left Low worrying about a team without either his experienced leader and the injured Sami Khedira against the French.
“I hope and wish that Bastian can make it,” Low said. “But one thing is clear, I will definitely not let anyone who is not 100 per cent fit play.
“It’s a really bitter blow when important players are sidelined at the crucial stage of the tournament.
Manchester United summer transfer targets
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Borussia Dortmund
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is believed to be on the verge of a £23m move to Old Trafford after Manchester United refused to give in despite a concerted effort by Borussia Dortmund to keep their highly-rated midfielder. The Armenian international almost joined Liverpool three years ago but Dortmund gazumped Brendan Rodgers’ men to secure one of the most combative midfielders in European football.
Paul Pogba, Juventus
Despite letting him go on Sir Alex Ferguson’s watch in 2012, United are desperate to land Juventus star Paul Pogba. It may yet take a world record fee of £100m to lure the 23-year-old away from Turin, however, but Jose Mourinho has made his intentions to sign world-class players known this summer. The Portuguese will hope Pogba can replicate the sort of form which has helped him scored 23 goals in 124 appearances in Serie A.
Alvaro Morata, Real Madrid
Having signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic in June, United remain on the lookout for cover in attacking positions with a move for Alvaro Morata seeming likely. The Spaniard was in fine form for his country at Euro 2016 this summer before it was announced that Real Madrid had utilised a buy-back clause in his Juventus contract. That isn’t the end of matters, though, with the Spanish giants planning to sell Morata on immediately for profit.
James Rodriguez, Real Madrid
After seeing little game time under Zinedine Zidane at Madrid, another name to be thrown into the Old Traffor mix is that of James Rodriguez. The Columbian superstar was even relegated to the La Liga B side on occasions as he fell quite spectacularly down the pecking order in the Spanish capital. While Paris Saint-Germain remains his most likely destination, with reports suggesting a fee has been agreed, don’t rule out a late counter offer from United.
Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal
In a surprise rumour, Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey was linked with a switch to the North West. The 25-year-old has been in scintillating form for Wales at Euro 2016 this summer but it remains to be seen if the Gunners would be willing to entertain an approach from one of their main titles for the Premier League throne. Ramsey is reportedly frustrated at the levels of competition in the centre at the Emirates but it is unlikely United would be able to offer a firmer guarantee of first-team football.
Hirving Lozano, Pachuca
Young Pachuca forward Hirving Lozano might not sell a mass of shirts immediately, if indeed he does sign, the 20-year-old is considered one of the most exciting talents in world football. Nicknamed ‘Chunky’, Lozano is capped seven times for Mexico despite his tender age, having scored 21 goals in 91 senior appearances for Pachuca.
N’Golo Kante, Leicester City
It seems everyone has been linked with Leicester City’s midfield maestro N’Golo Kante this summer. The Frenchman made a name for himself during the Foxes’ remarkable march to the Premier League title in 2016 following a low-key £5.6m transfer from Caen the previous summer. Kante is both combative and industrious, refusing to let up until possession is won back. While the champions may be keen to keep their little midfield star, the presence of a release clause in his contract at the King Power Stadium means a move away remains entirely possible.
Will Hughes, Derby County
Many thought Will Hughes may have missed his chance to make a big-money move away from the iPro Stadium when he rejected the chance to sign for Liverpool last summer. The young Englishman remains one of the most promising players outside the top flight despite being unable to inspire Derby to promotion from the Championship. The East Midlands outfit are likely to demand an inflated transfer fee for their midfield wizard too but United have shown in the past that money is usually no object.
“It was clear we would need Bastian over the course of the tournament. He did well against Italy, he worked hard and it was important to have his experience on the pitch.”
But even if fully fit, can Schweinsteiger roll back the years to keep Pogba in check at Stade Velodrome?
Twelve years on from making his debut for Die Mannschaft against Hungary in June 2004, Schweinsteiger stands to win his 120th cap against France.
He has scored 24 goals for his country – the most recent coming in stoppage time against Ukraine in the opening group game – and has undoubtedly performed as a latter day Lothar Matthaus for the Germans.
Yet at Euro 2016, Schweinsteiger has managed just 140 minutes over four games, in contrast to Pogba who, despite being dropped for the group game against Albania, has racked up 392 minutes over five games.
The 23-year-old’s goalscoring performance during the 5-2 quarter-final victory over Iceland on Sunday was his best display of the tournament and, having started the competition billed as a potentially dominant force, the Juventus midfielder now appears to be hitting form at the perfect time.
Schweinsteiger, all power and awareness, would have relished the clash with Pogba’s galloping stride and boundless energy during his pomp, but Marseille threatens to be a battle too far.
And nobody will be watching more closely than Mourinho, whose decision to hand Michael Carrick a one-year contract at United suggests that he has already settled on which veteran will be asked to bring experience and wisdom to his team next season.
It is difficult to envisage a Schweinsteiger future at Old Trafford under Mourinho, but it is easy to picture Pogba in the heart of the United midfield.
Schweinsteiger may have one last chance to prove that he remains the player he once was and it is not short on irony that that chance will come against the player most likely to phase him out.
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