MARTIN O’Neill will send Sunderland’s goal talisman Steven Fletcher away on Scotland duty under strict orders to come back fit and well.
The 25-year-old’s sensational form on Wearside was this week rewarded with a call-up from national manager Craig Levein as the pair settled their differences. As a result, Fletcher will head off after tomorrow’s Barclays Premier League clash at reigning champions Manchester City to join up with his international team-mates for the first time since February last year ahead of their crucial World Cup qualifiers against Wales and Belgium.
He will go with the blessing of O’Neill, who has already reaped a rich reward for his £12 million summer investment after seeing the striker plunder five goals in four league games. However, the Ulsterman will spend the ten days or so he is away hoping that Fletcher returns in good health and ready to pick up where he left off for the Black Cats.
O’Neill said: “He hasn’t spoken much about it to me. I think he’s pleased that whatever impasse was there has been breached and that he is back in the fold again.
“From my own viewpoint, I am obviously delighted for him that he is back in. Of course, it’s another one to add to the concerns about him coming back in a fortnight’s time, but you just take that into consideration.
“I think he is pleased to be back and from Scotland’s viewpoint, it’s good news for them. For him, it’s good he’s back there. I think he will improve the team. He is playing splendidly for us and I think he will be a boost for Scotland.”
O’Neill was hoping for a further boost yesterday afternoon when long-term absentee Phil Bardsley, another Scotland international, stepped up his return from injury in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Middlesbrough, while out-of-contract former Everton striker James McFadden, who has been training with the club, was also due to play with talks over his future imminent. O’Neill said: “I am going to speak to his agent and I am hoping we will be able to come up with something. It’s encouraging.”
Fletcher looks certain to start for Scotland against Wales, particularly as Kenny Miller may be struggling to be fully fit.
The Vancouver Whitecaps striker had to hobble off with a hamstring problem after just 18 minutes in his side’s 4-0 win over Chivas USA in the MLS.
He reported having a tight hamstring after the game, which is bound to be a worry for Levein.
Vancouver’s Scottish manager Martin Rennie is hoping the ex-Old Firm forward’s injury is not too serious. Rennie said: “I don’t think it’s anything too major, but he felt a little bit of pain and we couldn’t risk it. It’s a pity because he made an assist for our first goal and was looking lively.”
Scotland are also due to find out today if Steven Naismith is to be punished by Fifa for an alleged off-the-ball offence in last month’s opening World Cup draw with Serbia.
In an offence missed by referee Jonas Eriksson and match delegate Christian Schmolzer, the Everton striker was caught by TV cameras appearing to push his arm into the face of Srdan Mijailovic during the 0-0 stalemate on 8 September. With the former Rangers player then able to make a substitute’s appearance in the 1-1 draw with Macedonia three days later, it was initially thought the 26-year-old had escaped censure.
However, Fifa then informed the SFA they had opened disciplinary proceedings to look into the possible misconduct and the world governing body’s disciplinary committee will today consider their options.
Naismith has been included in Levein’s squad for the double-header in the hope that any suspension may be limited to just one game, although Fifa have the power to impose a ban of up to three games, a fine, a warning and/or a reprimand.
Wales will name their squad for the match in Cardiff this morning, while Belgium manager Marc Wilmots has named a 24-man squad packed with Champions League and English top-flight experience for their World Cup qualifying clash with Scotland on 16 October.
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, newly appointed Arsenal skipper Thomas Vermaelen, £32 million Chelsea attacker Eden Hazard and Everton’s Marouane Fellaini are among the players called up by Wilmots.
Belgium squad: Goalkeepers. Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid), Jean-Francois Gillet (Torino), Simon Mignolet (Sunderland). Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Ajax), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege), Guillaume Gillet (Anderlecht), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal). Midfielders: Nacer Chadli (FC Twente), Kevin De Bruyne (Werder Bremen), Steven Defour (Porto), Moussa Dembele (Tottenham), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Marouane Fellaini (Everton), Dries Mertens (PSV), Timmy Simons (Nurnberg), Axel Witsel (Zenit) Strikers: Christian Benteke (Aston Villa), Romelu Lukaku (West Bromwich Albion), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Jelle Vossen (Genk).