Harry Winks' injury could spoil his Tottenham, World Cup dreams
Fears over Harry Kane's World Cup participation may have proved premature but another Tottenham and England player is in real danger of missing out on the trip to Russia due to an ankle injury. Unfortunately, Harry Winks has become the forgotten man of both his club team and the international squad.
The 22-year-old was a rising force on the European and global stage in the autumn. Named the man of the match on his senior England debut against Lithuania in October, he promptly went on to star in both of Spurs' Champions League duels with Real Madrid and a 4-1 victory over Liverpool.
The Tottenham prodigy offers many of the qualities England have lacked in central midfield: quick, incisive passing and the ability to maintain a high-tempo rhythm, combined with bursting forward runs. His biggest rival has appeared to be Jack Wilshere on the other side of north London, another midfielder who moves the ball quickly. However, the Arsenal man's injury problems have been well-documented and he last played for his country at Euro 2016.
In terms of form, consistency and durability -- the latter being a particularly important factor in an intense summer tournament -- Winks appeared to have the edge at the start of November. It was little surprise when he was again called up to Gareth Southgate's squad for that month's friendlies against Germany and Brazil.
How quickly things change, though.
The ankle injury Winks suffered against Crystal Palace on Nov. 5 forced him to miss those England matches and he's never really recovered his fitness or his rhythm on the field since. Having initially tried to play through the discomfort, he returned to the treatment room at the end of December and has only made three appearances since, all against lower-league opposition. He's not even been able to get a place on the bench for the last three matches. Meanwhile Wilshere has just recalled to the England fold, underlining the change in fortunes for both players.
Pochettino said on Thursday that Winks's situation is "a little bit sad," which is an understatement.
There may just be time for the youngster to battle back in the final two months of the season and save his World Cup dream. He remains available for selection and since his three matches in 2018 have all come in the FA Cup, Saturday's quarterfinal at Swansea could potentially give him an opportunity to start a comeback.
However, his last two outings in the competition were poor. He didn't look himself in either of the clashes against League One strugglers Rochdale and was substituted in the 62nd minute on both occasions. Given that Tottenham now only have the FA Cup and a top-four spot to fight for, Saturday's trip to Swansea is therefore no time for charity. There may well be less rotation than in previous ties.
It was a similar story 12 months ago. Winks deservedly got the nod over Mousa Dembele in last year's quarterfinal against Millwall but that was one of only four changes from the lineup that had started the previous league game.
Kieran Trippier, Son Heung-Min and Michel Vorm were the other three players to come into an imposing side that ultimately triumphed 6-0, at home against a League One side. This time, Spurs are visiting a Premier League rival in their last-eight tie so Pochettino has even more reason to respect the opposition.
Since the north Londoners have had almost a full week off, don't play again until April 1 and have only this one chance of silverware remaining, fans would doubtless be hugely frustrated if Pochettino fielded a weakened team in South Wales and lost. So while Juan Foyth, Moussa Sissoko and Fernando Llorente have started every FA Cup tie so far, getting them the opportunities they have generally been denied in the league, this may be the moment when that run ends -- Winks may find himself in the same category.
No. 2 goalkeeper Vorm might well be the sole survivor from the group of fringe players who have taken centre stage in the earlier rounds. That would be the latest in a succession of blows for Winks, and it would be hard to see when he would next get a chance to impress Southgate.
It would be a huge shame if a lack of playing opportunities at Spurs resulted in or contributed to his absence from England's touring party. Given their fondness for the success of homegrown youngsters, Pochettino and Tottenham's fans would share Winks' disappointment -- particularly those English supporters who recognise the impact the midfielder could potentially have for the Three Lions in Russia.
But the club's goals must take priority over those of individuals. And given Winks' latest displays, helping him towards a World Cup spot and securing silverware for Spurs may be two targets that Pochettino cannot reconcile in the coming weeks.
Ben is ESPN FC's Tottenham blogger. Follow on Twitter: @BenPearceSpurs.