Leroy Sane would walk in to almost any World Cup squad – but not that of favourites Germany. (Reuters: Phil Noble)
With 10 days to go until the start of the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, the 32 countries who have qualified are busy going through their paces in camps and warm-up matches.
But there are some notable — and surprising — absentees.
And not just because Italy, the Netherlands and Chile didn’t qualify. Nor that some leading lights of the game have failed to make the tournament due to their countries lacking the depth of quality to help them get there.
The likes of Gareth Bale, Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, David Alaba, Naby Keita, Arturo Vidal, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexis Sanchez, Dimitri Payet, Lars Stindle and Sergio Romero miss out. But for obvious reason.
Others though, are fit for purpose but deemed surplus to requirements.
Mauro Icardi has been lethal in Serie A but is well down the Argentina pecking order. (Reuters: Stefano Rellandini)
Leroy Sane was a gun player for English Premier League winners Manchester City. Voted the league’s young player of the year after scoring 14 goals and providing 19 assists across all competitions for his club.
Germany, however, don’t feel they need him. Spain, Brazil and France, too, have done away with players who might have walked in to most other teams.
How Australia coach Bert van Marwijk must wish he could pick up one or two of the following:
Neto – Brazil
With Brazil blessed with quality between the sticks, the study in nominative determination that is Neto (full name Norberto Murara Neto) was always behind Roma’s Allison and Edison of Manchester City in the pecking order.
But he lost out on the third goalkeepers’ berth to Cassio, the evergreen Corinthians stopper, despite a more-than-creditable season with Spanish side Valencia.
Cassio was probably bumped ahead of Neto thanks to his impressive consistency over the past 10 years rather than compelling recent form. And the fact his side’s Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup wins came under the stewardship of Tite – the man now in the Brazil dugout.
Other goalkeeping squad members: Bernd Leno – Germany; Sven Ulreich – Germany
Marcus Alonso – Spain
A marauding presence in the wing back role for Chelsea in their Premier League title win in 2016-17, his form, like his team’s, dipped below that standard last year.
However, despite a season of general discontent at Stamford Bridge, the 33-year-old did wade in with seven goals in 33 league starts this season. No shabby return for a player who is ostensibly a defender.
The bitter pill will have been made harder to swallow by effectively missing out on his place to Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal.
Aymeric Laporte – France
Worth $80m in the eyes of Manchester City and Pep Guardiola, but not worth a spot in the France squad according to Didier Deschamps.
Aymeric Laporte was a big money signing for Premier League champions Manchester City but has been left out of the France squad. (Reuters: Jason Cairnduff)
With Laurent Koscielny out through injury, the former Athletic Bilbao ball-playing centre-half can consider himself unfortunate to miss out. A regular for France at all under-age levels, the 24-year-old is a mainstay of the side in the waiting. But waiting is all he will be doing this summer.
Hector Bellerin – Spain
Bellerin’s form for Arsenal last season was a downgrade on previous campaigns when his pace and purpose saw him effective at both ends of the pitch on the right flank. The former Barcelona man has just three Spain caps to his name and didn’t feature at all during qualifying.
That, however, was more to do with the quality ahead of him rather than his own deficiencies. Dani Carvajal of Real Madrid is first pick at right back. And even when he has been injured Real Sociedad’s impressive Alvaro Odriozola has been preferred.
Other squads, even some thought of as dark horses, are not as blessed.
Other defensive squad members: David Luiz – Brazil; Shkodran Mustafi – Germany
Leroy Sane – Germany
An electric presence out wide for the Premier League champions, Sane has yet to “arrive” for his national side, as coach Joachim Low explained when axing him for the final squad.
He missed last winter’s Confederations Cup — effectively an open audition for a host of young players — to have surgery. And, reading between the lines from Low’s words, the manager doesn’t yet fancy the man even if the player is in form.
Julian Brandt, who terrorised Australia in Russia last year, got the nod ahead of him. A tough call for the German coach but an enviable one to be in that position of strength.
“It was almost like a 100-metre race at the Olympics, with a photo finish,” was how Low described the decision between Sane and Brandt. It was the first race the speedy Sane has lost all year.
Radja Nainggolan – Belgium
A central component in Roma’s whirlwind run to the Champions League semi-final, Nainggolan produced a stellar display in the dramatic quarter-final comeback against Barcelona and came close to repeating the trick against Liverpool, too.
Roma’s Radja Nainggolan has been left our of the Belgium squad for ‘tactical’ reasons. (Reuters: Alberto Lingria)
Belgium are over-run with creative talent, but his omission still raised eyebrows. Coach Roberto Martinez described it as merely “tactical”. Others were left to ponder if something other than raw football ability played a part in the decision.
Nainggolan responded by retiring from international football.
Cesc Fabregas – Spain
No longer the metronomic talent of his younger years, Fabregas would regardless have been one of the first picks in most squads outside the top four or five favourites.
Unfortunately for him Spain fall in to that category.
The Chelsea man has only produced intermittently for his club side in the past two seasons and has suffered from a decline of what was never lightning pace.
But still, the fact his failure to make the squad drew little debate in Spain underlines the fact they are a force to be reckoned with once again after their chastening defeat to the Netherlands in Brazil.
Mario Gotze – Germany
Four years ago, it was Gotze who scored Germany’s extra-time winner in the World Cup final against Argentina. This year he isn’t in the squad.
After a — by his previous standards at least — ordinary season for Borussia Dortmund, like Sane he has suffered from the overcrowding of talent in the reigning champions’ midfield.
There is good reason the Germans are, once more, many people’s pick to go all the way.
Anthony Martial – France
A combination of the mid-season arrival of Alexis Sanchez and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho’s unwillingness to give him a consistent run in the side appears to have robbed Martial of his place in the France squad.
The pacey winger was given just 18 games in the Premier League season just finished, though did score nine times. His team-mates’ profligacy in front of goal didn’t help either. His five assists came from 30 chances created, according to Opta data.
It is unlikely the French would be so wasteful. But Martial won’t have the chance to find out for sure.
Other midfield squad members: Erik Lamela – Argentina; Fabinho – Brazil; Kingsley Coman – France; Andre Gomes – Portugal; Juan Mata – Spain
Karim Benzema – France
Benzema’s absence from the French squad owes much more to his ongoing clash of personalities with coach Deschamps than it does with any questions over his quality.
A scorer in Real Madrid’s third straight Champions League final victory, he has not played for the national team since 2015, when he scored the last of his 27 international goals in 81 appearances.
Karim Benzema is out of favour with French national team manager Didier Deschamps, despite his fine form for Real Madrid. (AP: Francisco Seco)
Benzema was initially suspended due to his alleged involvement in an alleged exhortation of France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. That has been resolved. But the expected return to the fold hasn’t occurred. And won’t until Deschamps leaves his post. If ever.
Mauro Icardi – Argentina
A quick look at Icardi’s record for Inter Milan this year prompts some serious head scratching over his omission from the Argentina squad. The striker scored 29 goals in 34 games in a far-from-vintage Inter side.
However, a further look at Argentina’s forwards who did make the cut offers an explanation. Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuian and, of course, Lionel Messi are tough company to make keep, even for a forward of Icardi’s class and consistency.
Other forward squad members: Alvaro Morata – Spain; Alexandre Lacazette -France; Eder – Portugal