Absent in Russia: The best XI of players not at the 2018 World Cup

Tuesday, 8th May 2018, 9:42 am
Updated Tuesday, 8th May 2018, 10:18 am

The World Cup is the stage for the very best footballers on the planet to congregate once every four years. At least, that is what is meant to happen.

Sadly, some will miss out through injury. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in the form of his life for Liverpool, will miss out for England due to a knee injury while Laurent Koscielny ruptured his achilles playing for Arsenal, rendering him unavailable for France.

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Others, though, will not participate in Russia on account of their nation's failure to qualify. For some, the odds were stacked against them from the outset on account of representing a small nation, while others, playing for historically larger countries, will also spend their summer on a beach somewhere rather than in Russia.

Here is an XI of players that will not be taking part in this summer's World Cup after their nations failed to progress beyond the qualifiers.

Goalkeeper: Jan Oblak (Slovenia)

Anyone with a soul would have felt for Gianluigi Buffon as the tears flowed in the wake of Italy's play-off defeat to Sweden and while goodwill towards him has cooled somewhat in the wake of his defamatory comments towards Michael Oliver, that isn't the reason why his name is absent here.

On form, there are few goalkeepers better than Jan Oblak, whose Slovenia side missed out courtesy of finishing 4th in England's group. Oblak has kept 21 clean sheets in 34 La Liga games for Atletico Madrid this season and (more ridiculously) hasn't conceded in 1,007 minutes at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Right back: Antonio Valencia (Ecuador)

Manchester United's Mr Dependable himself will have to watch a whole host of his club colleagues on TV at home as Ecuador failed to reach their fourth World Cup finals, finishing eighth out of ten teams in the Conmebol qualifying campaign.

Fitness permitting, Valencia is one the first names on Jose Mourinho's teamsheet and is equally relied upon by his country, making 92 appearances since his debut back in 2005.

Centre Back: Virgil Van Dijk (Netherlands)

It's amazing to think that the Netherlands finished third in the World Cup just four years ago considering they have since failed to reach two major tournaments in succession.

Virgil van Dijk will play a key role in getting the Oranje back on track under Ronald Koeman and has already been handed the captain's armband by his former Southampton manager.

At least he gets to the play in the Champions League final, though.

Centre Back: Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)

Recency bias may count against Leonardo Bonucci on this one, but in terms of form this season, Giorgio Chiellini has to be preferred to his long-time club and country colleague in this side.

There can be few players that match Chiellini's passion for defending: he seemingly loves nothing more than flinging his body on the line to stop shots on goal, protecting Buffon as a bodyguard protects the President.

Left Back: David Alaba (Austria)

One of the top five left-backs in the world. With the exception of Brazil who boast an embarrassment of riches in that particular position, David Alaba would virtually walk into any other national team on the planet.

Indeed, so complete is Alaba's skill-set, he generally lines up in an advanced midfield position for his country rather than in the flying full-back role he has perfected at Bayern.

Central Midfield: Marco Verratti (Italy)

Like the Netherlands, Marco Verratti will have to wait until 2020 at the earliest to make his first tournament appearance for the Azzurri since the last World Cup having missed out on Euro 2016 due to a groin injury.

Verratti will be 27 by the time Euro 2020 rolls around and will have just 132 minutes of tournament experience behind him. That number is far too small for a player who has been lauded as Andrea Pirlo's successor ever since anchoring Pescara's midfield as a teenager.

Centre Midfield: Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)

Marek Hamsik has participated and captained Slovakia in their only major tournament appearances to date - as a 22-year-old in the 2010 World Cup and again in the European Championships in France two years ago.

Still only 30, time is on Hamsik's side to feature in another before he hangs up his boots but it's a shame that he will not be heading to Russia given the quality of his play for Napoli this season. The Partenopei's favourite adopted son since Diego Maradona, has been the tempo-setter in Maurizio Sarri's midfield during the club's title charge.

Centre Midfield: Arturo Vidal (Chile)

Despite being a central figure in Juventus, Bayern Munich and Chile's recent sustained periods of success, Arturo Vidal still seems bizarrely under-rated in the grand scheme of things.

Perhaps it is the off-field shenanigans and his caricature features that detract from the fact that he is one of the very best central midfielders in the game.

It is a crying shame that he and his teammates will not be able to show what they can do on the world stage having lifted the last two Copa America titles in 2015 and 2016.

Right Wing: Gareth Bale (Wales)

Reduced to a bit-part role under Zinedine Zidane this season, there will be no shortage of takers for Gareth Bale if, as expected, he is made available for transfer by Real Madrid in the summer.

Bale isn't the first superstar to find himself out-of-favour under Zidane - the current World Cup golden boot holder James Rodriguez is another - and that shouldn't necessarily count against him.

As Bale demonstrated at Euro 2016, scoring three goals as Wales reached the semi-finals, he can make a big impact on the international stage. Perhaps he and Ryan Giggs will make their first World Cup in four years time.

Left Wing: Alexis Sanchez (Chile)

Alongside Vidal, Alexis Sanchez played a starring role as Chile won the first major title in their history in 2015 before repeating the trick a year later by defeating Argentina again on penalties.

Historically, the World Cup has been a good tournament for Sanchez too. His performances in 2010 alerted Barcelona to his potential while his form in 2014 resulted in a move to Arsenal.

Sanchez hasn't been at his best since making his blockbuster switch to Manchester United in January but he is a player for the big occasion and will be missed this summer.

Striker: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon)

Of all the players in this team, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is surely the player most at risk of never playing at the World Cup considering Gabon have never qualified for the tournament.

Whether or not Aubameyang - his country's all-time top scorer - is too bothered is perhaps worthy of debate considering he rejected the call-up to feature in back-to-back qualifying games against Ivory Coast in the autumn.

Best of the rest:

Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile (Italy), Eric Bailly, Wilfried Zaha, Jean-Michael Seri (Ivory Coast), Aaron Ramsey (Wales), Riyad Mahrez, Faouzi Ghoulam (Algeria), Christian Pulisic (USA), Naby Keita (Guinea), Miralem Pjanic, Edin Dzeko (Bosnia), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia)

This piece originally appeared in our sister title, iNews