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The 2018 World Cup is just around the corner. And perhaps more so than any previous edition of soccer’s banner event, its absentee list is loaded.
One of the many offshoots of high-profile qualification failures – such as those of Italy, the Netherlands, Chile and the United States – is a star-studded group of player who’ll spend their World Cup summers on beaches or couches.
Add in some major injuries, and stunning 23-man squad omissions, and the list of players who won’t be in Russia this summer is absolutely stacked. How stacked?
So stacked that there’s no room for one of Serie A’s joint-leading scorers, Ciro Immobile.
So stacked that American wunderkind Christian Pulisic doesn’t even touch the list – he might not even make a top 50.
And so stacked that we simply couldn’t limit it to 25 players:
25c. Alvaro Morata, F, Spain/Chelsea
Morata was Spain’s No. 9 at Euro 2016. Two summers later, after struggling over the latter half of the Premier League season, he doesn’t even have a place in the 23. He was usurped by Diego Costa, Rodrigo and Iago Aspas. But he really wasn’t that much worse in his debut season at Chelsea than he had been in three previous ones at Juventus and Real Madrid.
25b. Adrien Rabiot, M, France/PSG
A surprise omission from the French squad, Rabiot notched at least as many league appearances as any other PSG outfield player this past season. He’s calm and smooth on the ball in the center of the park. But Didier Deschamps preferred Steven N’Zonzi’s combativeness.
25a. Karim Benzema, F, France/Real Madrid
Look, he was pretty awful this past season. He bagged just five La Liga goals on almost 14 Expected Goals. That’s remarkably pitiful. But Benzema is still a classy player. There’s a reason he played more than any other Madrid forward, despite his shoddy finishing. As Cristiano Ronaldo has become more of a poacher, Benzema has become the link. His 10 assists hint at that. And the poor goalscoring record was fluky.
24. Dani Alves, D, Brazil/PSG
Would have been Brazil’s starting right back in Russia, but a knee injury has cost the 35-year-old what would have been his final World Cup.
23. Dimitri Payet, M, France/Marseille
Payet was also the victim of cruel injury misfortune. One of France’s Euro 2016 stars limped off in the first half of the Europa League final, and was subsequently left out of Deschamps’ 23.
22. Sergi Roberto, D/M, Spain/Barcelona
Roberto, originally a midfielder, came into his own as a right back this past season at Camp Nou. But Dani Carvajal and Cesar Azpilicueta are well ahead of him on the Spanish fullback depth chart. Real Sociedad youngster Alvaro Odriozola, however, was also picked ahead of the Barca man.
21. Riyad Mahrez, M, Algeria/Leicester City
Mahrez’s exploits at Leicester have made him a Manchester City target. But on the international stage, his Algerian side finished bottom of its final-round qualifying group.
20. Gianluigi Buffon, G, Italy/Juventus
The 2018 World Cup was supposed to be the curtain call for a true legend. Instead, Italy choked in a qualifying playoff against Sweden. So, uh, you’ll see a few more Italians on this list.
19. Arturo Vidal, M, Chile/Bayern Munich
Chile, after winning back-to-back Copa Americas, crashed out of South American qualifying. Vidal, who was caught up in off-the-field controversy down the stretch, was one of the culprits. But even if he’s on the decline, he belongs on this list.
18. Javi Martinez, M, Spain/Bayern Munich
Martinez, strangely, was never really in contention for a plane ticket to Russia with La Roja. Sure, his game clashes stylistically with Spain’s. But he’s still one of the better holding midfielders in Europe.
17. Radja Nainggolan, M, Belgium/Roma
Never got out of Belgium manager Roberto Martinez’s doghouse, despite an excellent campaign at Roma. If Martinez finds himself in need of a box-to-box midfielder to complement Kevin De Bruyne and Mousa Dembele, he might regret the decision.
16. Edin Dzeko, F, Bosnia and Herzegovina/Roma
Dzeko and Bosnia qualified four years ago, but came up short this time around.
15. Jorginho, M, Italy/Napoli
Underused and misused by Italian manager Giampiero Ventura during the failed qualifying campaign. He’s a deep-lying pass-master who has reportedly drawn interest from Manchester City and Liverpool.
14. Virgil van Dijk, D, Netherlands/Liverpool
That van Dijk is the only Dutch player on this list tells you something about the reason the Oranje failed to qualify. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie could no longer carry the load, and not enough Dutchmen were on the heals, ready to take the torch and run with it. Van Dijk, however, has proven he’s a top-quality center back in his first half-season at Liverpool.
13. Mauro Icardi, F, Argentina/Inter Milan
There was no room for Serie A’s other joint-top scorer in a star-studded Argentina squad. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain were selected ahead of Icardi, despite the 25-year-old’s 97 club goals over the past four seasons.
12. Lorenzo Insigne, F, Italy/Napoli
Even more inexplicable than Jorginho’s underuse was Insigne’s. The diminutive winger has supercharged Serie A’s best attack. He’s the best Italian attacker out there. But he played all of 15 minutes – as a central midfielder, no less – as Italy flailed about for 180 in search of a goal. It was infuriating. Because Insigne is a delight.
11. David Alaba, D, Austria/Bayern Munich
The second-best left back in the world when healthy. But Austria finished fourth in its qualifying group, a long way away from Russia.
10. Miralem Pjanic, M, Bosnia and Herzegovina/Juventus
One of the most well-rounded midfielders unknown to the casual fan, because he plays in Serie A and for Bosnia. It’s a shame he and Dzeko might not get a second shot on the biggest stage of all.
9. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, F, Gabon/Arsenal
There was a time not too long ago that Aubameyang might have topped this list. He ran rampant with Borussia Dortmund for a good two-and-a-half seasons, averaging over 1.0 xG per 90 minutes in each. But he was less than stellar upon his big-money move to Arsenal. So there are two concerns: One, that his skill set was amplified significantly by Dortmund’s system, and two, that a soon-to-be 29-year-old so reliant on pace is a candidate for early deterioration. Still, though, he’s a menace up front.
8. Giorgio Chiellini, D, Italy/Juventus
Still so intelligent, so fearless, and so unbending, even at age 33.
7. Marco Verratti, M, Italy/PSG
Has been genuinely disappointing in an Italy shirt. But the 25-year-old is so quick and so slick on the ball. There’s a reason there are routinely nine-figure transfer fees next to his name in headlines.
6. Leonardi Bonucci, D, Italy/AC Milan
His reputation has taken a slight hit since the backwards move to Milan. But only a slight one. Two years ago, he was considered the best defender in the world, and one of the best long passers, regardless of position. His raking cross-field balls are a unique asset. If you had to pick one player to play in the center of a back three, even now, you just might pick Bonucci.
5. Alexis Sanchez, F, Chile/Manchester United
Fell off a cliff after getting his oft-clamored-for move to United. And failed to drag Chile to Russia. But the talent is still there. Expect to see more of it at Old Trafford next season.
4. Naby Keita, M, Guinea/RB Leipzig
On his way to Liverpool this summer. He’s the ultimate Jurgen Klopp midfielder, an energizer bunny on both sides of the ball. He’ll skate by opposing midfielders with it, and apply unceasing pressure high up the field without it. He wasn’t as productive this past season as he was a year prior, but Anfield faithful need not worry. (Guinea, of course, did not come anywhere close to qualification.)
3. Leroy Sane, M/F, Germany/Manchester City
2. Jan Oblak, G, Slovenia/Atletico Madrid
Arguably a top-three keeper in the world, but couldn’t lift Slovenia to any better than fourth in a qualifying group that also featured Slovakia, Scotland and England. At 25 years old, he could soon become the most expensive goalkeeper ever.
1. Gareth Bale, F, Wales/Real Madrid
After leading Wales to the Euro 2016 semis, Bale couldn’t get his nation to Russia. He’ll probably have one more shot. In the meantime, though, he’s winning Champions League finals with bicycle kicks, which seems like a pretty decent substitute for a World Cup.
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