Belfast Telegraph

Hughes faces race to make Northern Ireland's Romania clash

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland star Aaron Hughes is set to miss next Friday’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier against Romania in Bucharest.

Hughes suffered an ankle injury while playing for Brighton against Bournemouth in the Championship at the weekend and while there is no break as first feared, Seagulls manager Sami Hyypia is still suggesting the 34-year-old could be missing for weeks ruling him out of the Group F encounter.

Another source close to the club told the Belfast Telegraph that Hughes would struggle to make the top of the table clash with Romania and was ‘very unlikely’ to travel with the international squad.

If that proves to be the case it will be a major blow to Northern Ireland because Hughes has been one of the key players behind the record breaking start to the campaign, which has seen Michael O’Neill’s team win their opening three matches.

West Brom’s Gareth McAuley and Hughes have forged an outstanding partnership at the heart of the defence, helping to keep two clean sheets in victories against the Faroe Islands and Greece last month.

Former Liverpool favourite Hyypia, who signed Hughes from Fulham in the summer, said: “There is nothing on the bone, so that’s a good thing.”

"If the bone was broken or something happened to the bone it would be a long process.

"Now we are waiting for the swelling to go down. Then we will be able to assess it a little bit better. If it's ligament damage we are talking about weeks more than months."

Hughes has been a quick healer throughout his career, and would be desperate to play for his country in such an important match, but he and O'Neill won't take any risks, even though Hughes excelled alongside McAuley during the 2-0 success over Greece.

In Athens Hughes played in his 31st Euro qualifier, equalling Keith Gillespie's record. It was the Cookstown man's 93rd cap leaving him just two behind David Healy, Northern Ireland's most capped outfield player.

Another Northern Ireland defender, Alex Bruce, is also looking at a spell on the sidelines having pulled his hamstring in training last week.

The Hull City ace was superb for the Tigers in their scoreless draw at Liverpool last month, and will be disappointed that injury has prevented him getting a run in the side or making a potential return to the international set up.

"Alex got injured in training on Friday. It's probably going to be two, three or four weeks," revealed Hull boss Steve Bruce, who, of course, is Alex's father.

On the upside for O'Neill, scheduled this morning to name his squad for the trip to Romania, Watford's Craig Cathcart is available again and Manchester United's Jonny Evans is close to a return while youngster Paddy McNair is back playing after injury.

McNair was in line for a Northern Ireland call up last month until a hamstring problem intervened. The teenager from Ballyclare came off the bench for United in Sunday's 1-0 defeat at Manchester City and with all the injuries and the suspension to Chris Smalling, sent off in the derby, McNair could play once more on Saturday for the Red Devils against Crystal Palace.

Next Friday's clash between Northern Ireland and Romania pits the two unbeaten teams in the group together. O'Neill's men have a maximum nine points while the Romanians have seven.

Another victory for Northern Ireland and the fans really could start booking their holidays to France in 2016.

Belfast Telegraph

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