Monday, therefore, was also a day of individual heartbreak and elation. Some World Cup dreams came true. Others were dashed.
And it was a day of raised eyebrows and controversy. Between the last-minute decisions and previously-announced squads, there were plenty of surprises. Here are the most notable ones:
Leroy Sane cut by Germany
Leroy Sane was the English Premier League’s Young Player of the Year. He was one of the 2017-18 season’s breakout stars. He sprayed around 15 assists in the world’s toughest league, second to only club teammate Kevin De Bruyne. He wasn’t just a World Cup roster shoo-in; he seemed like a lock to start on Germany’s left wing.
But Joachim Low had other ideas. He axed Sane as he cut his preliminary squad down to 23, opting for Bayer Leverkusen youngster Julian Brandt ahead of the Manchester City attacker. (Brandt, commonly referred to as a youngster, is the same age as Sane, by the way.) On the surface, it’s an absurd decision. Sane would have given Germany a different, vertical dimension. This decision will be pinpointed if the Germans stall anytime before the semifinals.
Manuel Neuer wins his fitness race
German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was widely considered the best goalkeeper in the world 12 months ago. But he closed out the club season having not played a single minute of competitive soccer since September. With Marc-Andre Ter Stegen available to Germany as his deputy, Neuer seemed unlikely to make the cut.
But he has. He played in a friendly this past weekend. And Low has said the Bayern Munich stopper would be his No. 1 if in the squad. So … there you have it. Neuer will start for Germany against Mexico, and it’ll be his first competitive match in nine months.
No room in Spain’s squad for Alvaro Morata
Alvaro Morata was Spain’s No. 9 at Euro 2016. He was La Furia Roja‘s joint-leading scorer in qualifying. Six months ago, he was probably the favorite to start up top against Portugal in the World Cup opener.
But a late-season slump at Chelsea didn’t just bump him down the depth chart; it bumped him out of the 23 altogether. On current form, it was perhaps a reasonable decision. On ability and track record, it’s a shocking one.
Spain takes Alvaro Odriozola over Sergi Roberto
Spain’s list of omitted players was full of big names. It included Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata, Javi Martinez, Marcos Alonso, Pedro, Ander Herrera, and a host of others. But many of those omissions were understandable. Aside from Morata, the most surprising decision might have been manager Julen Lopetegui’s choice of Real Sociedad right back Alvaro Odriozola over Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto – especially after Roberto just completed his strongest season yet at Camp Nou.
No Mauro Icardi for Argentina
Mauro Icardi has scored 97 goals the past four seasons at Inter Milan. He powered in 29 this past year, good enough for a place atop Italy’s goalscoring charts. At 25, he’s in the prime of his career.
And yet he has made just four appearances for Argentina, and couldn’t crack the World Cup 23. That Sergio Aguero was taken ahead of him is understandable. That Gonzalo Higuain was preferred is a bit less so, given Higuain’s shoddy record at international level. And even so, shouldn’t manager Jorge Sampaoli have considered picking a third No. 9, if that No. 9 was a player of Icardi’s quality?
If Higuain flops again, there will be a lot of criticism for the Chilean boss.
Thauvin, Fekir in for France; Martial out
Anthony Martial’s lack of regular playing time at Manchester United likely cost him a World Cup. The 22-year-old has played 18 times for Les Bleus, but was cut to make room for two domestic-based stars, Florian Thauvin and Nabil Fekir. They’re lesser names, but more productive. They combined for 40 goals and 19 assists this past season in Ligue 1. So while Martial’s omission was surprising, it was probably the correct decision.
France takes Steven N’Zonzi over Adrien Rabiot
France, like Spain, could build a World Cup quarterfinalist with the players it left out of its 23. So there were always going to be big names missing. The other true eye-opener, however, was in midfield. Adrien Rabiot, a PSG regular, and at one point a candidate for a starting spot, was dropped. The mercurial Steven N’Zonzi was called in ahead of him, likely because of his superior defensive qualities.
Roberto Martinez shuns Radja Nainggolan
Radja Nainggolan is Belgium’s best box-to-box midfielder (non-Kevin De Bruyne division), but never forced his way into Roberto Martinez’s World Cup plans. Nobody is quite sure why. He would, on paper, be the perfect partner for De Bruyne and Mousa Dembele if a midfield three were required.
A new era for Denmark
The biggest shame of roster deadline day, in all honesty, came out of Denmark. The notorious Niklas Bendtner won’t be in Russia. He had to pull out of the squad due to injury.
But his absence has opened up a place in the 23 for exciting 20-year-old Ajax frontman Kasper Dolberg. He’s one of the more under-the-radar squad surprises. He’s never made a senior start for Denmark. But striker is a position of weakness for the Danes. So keep Dolberg’s name in mind if they struggle for goals.
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