David Moyes and Manchester United were criticised in some quarters this summer after making Marouane Fellaini their sole senior addition during the transfer window, but the Red Devils could be without the powerful midfielder for several weeks as well now, as he requires surgery on an injured wrist.
Daniel Jones of Metro reported that the injury could sideline the former Everton man for up to seven weeks, so it would be understandable that United want to get that process up and running as quickly as possible—but it seems they will have to wait until after the international break at least.
Belgium named Fellaini in their squad for the final two World Cup qualifying matches this week, and Jamie Jackson of the Guardian reports that manager Marc Wilmots is set to train with and, if required, play Fellaini against Croatia on Friday.
Fellaini was withdrawn from the Shakhtar Donetsk game midway through last week, before not featuring at all against Sunderland in the Premier League at the weekend.
The Guardian report states that Wilmots does not believe United to have asked for the wrist surgery to be performed with all possible haste, meaning the midfielder is likely to be asked to play a key role in the vital match against Croatia.
Vital, because if Belgium simply avoid defeat, they will have guaranteed qualification to a first FIFA World Cup, indeed any first major tournament, since 2002—a fallow spell taking in five missed tournaments and a dozen years.
Having put together an exceptionally talented group over the past two years, Belgium are now considered by many as one of the better European prospects heading to Brazil in 2014, and Fellaini plays a big role for them.
The 25-year-old has been capped 40 times for his country and provides a rock-solid platform in midfield for the more attack-minded outlets to benefit from, including the likes of Kevin Mirallas, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku.
Belgium have racked up seven wins and one draw from their eight qualifiers so far and, in truth, even if they lose to Croatia are still likely to progress as they face Wales in their final match. Wales have been nothing short of abject during the qualifiers, ranked bottom of Group A, having conceded 19 goals in eight games, and Belgium should be more than confident of swatting them aside.
From that perspective, it would be acceptable to understand a United viewpoint saying Fellaini should not play and should instead go to have his surgery at the earliest moment.
An in-form Aaron Ramsey alone should not stand up to a midfield comprising Axel Witsel, Moussa Dembele, Steven Defour or even the veteran Timmy Simons.
However, as technically good as this team is, its mental strength and ability to play under severe pressure has not yet been tested. Belgium will not want such a good qualification campaign to have to ultimately go right to the wire.
Wilmots and the rest of his staff will want Fellaini in place as they travel to Zagreb.
Likely partnering Witsel in the centre from the start, Belgium have a powerful, energetic and difficult-to-beat midfield, which will protect the back line, and plenty of rapid attackers who can hurt Croatia on the counter.
The home side will have no particular worries about defeat. They are guaranteed second place, being six points ahead of Serbia, who have just one game left to play. A playoff spot is assured for Croatia—they might as well give it everything in trying to beat Belgium and put the group leaders under pressure ahead of the last round of games.
Consistency and mentality, for Belgium, could prove just as important as actual footballing ability in this game.
They need players in place who can do whatever it takes to not lose a match. As Fellaini will be quickly finding out from new teammates, that is a minimum requirement for being a United player, certain recent results aside.
He's a big player for club and country and will want to do everything to assure his nation and himself of a place in Brazil 2014.
Get through the Croatia game unscathed and he can head off for a break and, if necessary, an immediate operation—but the World Cup-sealing match against Croatia has to be the priority right now.