The Champions League is not an appropriate name for the competition. Its league phase is pitifully short, and Arsenal’s consistent qualification for much of the past decade makes a mockery of the term ‘champions’. The World Cup, however, is appropriately named. What makes the tournament so special is the diverse set of nations from across the globe that it brings together. The global nature of this tournament means that many of the world’s leading footballers don’t make it past the qualification phase and are instead stuck on the sofa this summer taking in the delights of Tunisia vs Panama. Here’s a nod to some of those players missing out who will feel their talent is World Cup ready, even if the rest of their national side wasn’t. We’ll also have a look at those teams brimming with star quality who will be cursing their mediocre performances in qualifying.
The key players
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has hit a rich vein of form at Arsenal, with the striker looking as hungry for goals as he did at Borussia Dortmund. Well, he’s not too hungry; Aubameyang’s recent concession of penalty-taking duties to ailing team-mate Alexandre Lacazette had onlookers scratching their heads, considering that Gabon’s leading scorer had both already scored a penalty in the match and was on a hat-trick. Some applauded the conscientious behaviour in allowing Lacazette to end a barren run, which the Frenchman duly did, while those who had captained Aubameyang in fantasy football bemoaned his generosity. You’d wonder if Aubameyang would be so charitable if a similar situation arose in the World Cup. Sadly, wonder is all we can do. Gabon failed to make it past qualification, and their history of having never reached a World Cup doesn’t bode well for us seeing Aubameyang strut his stuff at the global tournament.
Hal Robson-Kanu may have appeared to channel Cristiano Ronaldo for brief moments during Euro 2016, but Cristiano Ronaldo he isn’t. This isn’t a suggestion that Robson-Kanu is one of the leading players absent from Russia this summer, but rather a comparison of the calibre of players that Gareth Bale lines up with at club and international level. Bale will understandably be disappointed that Wales were unable to build on a promising Euro 2016 campaign by reaching Russia. At least Bale hasn’t responded to that disappointment by running away to join Sunderland, a move that Chris Coleman may reflect on as inadvisable. Bale will be looking onwards and upwards with Ryan Giggs now at the helm, and promising talents such as Ethan Ampadu and Ben Woodburn are hinting at a brighter future for Wales. For now, however, Bale will be watching many of his Real Madrid team-mates with envy this summer.
In Slovenia’s two games against England in qualification, Jan Oblak conceded only one goal. However, in the first game he was outshone by Joe Hart and in the second game, he conspired to throw the ball to Kyle Walker to set up a late Harry Kane winner. Of course, none of that detracts from the reputation that Oblak has crafted over the past few years through his consistently impressive performances for Atletico Madrid. While it would normally be good practice to hope for England to face goalkeepers who have a track record of gifting them goals, attackers throughout the World Cup will instead be relieved that they don’t have to face such an imperious goalkeeper in Russia. Oblak looks set to be one of the world’s leading goalkeepers for years to come, and Slovenia should have enough to sneak into major tournaments in the future.
Alexis Sanchez will be more than disappointed with how his 2017/18 season has gone. A turgid first half of the season stuck at Arsenal has transformed into an underwhelming second half in which Sanchez has struggled to acclimatise to life at Manchester United. Peru are the surprise package who qualified at the expense of Chile, with the latter a side who have lit up recent tournaments with their free-flowing football. While Peru lack individual stars of the calibre of Sanchez or Arturo Vidal, their qualifying campaign was a shining example of how cohesion trumps egos. Sanchez has ability that surpasses most others in the game, so he will be frustrated that a theoretically talented Chile team have blown an opportunity to make an impression in Russia.
England’s recent friendly performances against the Netherlands and Italy were extremely encouraging, with the impetuousness of youth combining with thoughtful build-up play to produce something exciting and distinctly un-English. But, and with England, there is always a but, the Netherlands have been thoroughly disappointing over the past few years, while this is the weakest Italian side for decades. Nevertheless, don’t let that spoil your anticipation for the World Cup this summer. Both sides are still replete with considerable talents that really should have delivered qualification to the World Cup. The Netherlands hold a record that is equally prestigious and unfortunate by being the nation to have lost the most World Cup finals without claiming the trophy. In Virgil van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum and Arjen Robben, Netherlands should have had sufficient experience to have guided their typically prodigious pool of youngsters to Russia. Robben has since retired from international football, meaning that the world will be deprived of watching him cut inside and shoot on the biggest stage for one last time.
Italy were somewhat unlucky to have been drawn in a qualifying group with Spain, who have proven themselves to be pretty good at football. Yet their playoff defeat to Sweden was all their own doing. Gian Piero Ventura was unable to bring together attacking talents such as Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne in a formation that made sense, and so Gianluigi Buffon will not be given the chance to say a proper farewell to the World Cup. Don’t rule out the evergreen Buffon from rocking up in Qatar in 2022, but the likelihood is that the legendary glovesman has saved his last World Cup shot. Buffon has had a glittering career to be proud of, but Italy’s disappointing attempt at qualification has robbed him of a fitting swansong.