• From Mauro Icardi to Rafa Marquez, here are some big names who might not be heading to this summer's World Cup in Russia.
By Jonathan Wilson
May 11, 2018

It’s the point in the cycle when anxiety is beginning to mount for fringe players. Monday is the deadline for countries to submit their 35-man provisional squads for the World Cup and a number of big names are in danger of missing out on the finals. We know already that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be there after he confirmed he has no intention of coming out international retirement while some stars – the Tunisia forward Youssef Msakhny, England’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the France defender Laurent Koscielny and Brazil's right-back and influential player Dani Alves – have suffered serious injury. Here, though, we look at some big questions facing national team coaches.


Ever since Dybala gave an interview last year in which he explained how he finds it difficult to play with Lionel Messi, his position has been under threat. The interview itself has been widely misportrayed, and Messi himself sought to explain it earlier this month: it was not a criticism of Messi as much as an expression of the thought process of a player when he knows one of his team-mates is so much more talented than him and the temptation is simply to give the ball to him rather than playing properly. It’s not easy to imagine how the Juventus forward can play in the same side as Messi, but he looks as equipped as anybody available for the essentially impossible job of being his reserve and it now appears Dybala will be called up.

That’s not the case for Icardi, despite scoring 28 goals in Serie A this season, including one in each of his last four games. Argentina are blessed with a host of gifted forwards and the coach Jorge Sampaoli seems to see him as a disruptive figure (in part because of his relationship with Wanda Nara, the former wife of the former Argentina forward Maxi Lopez). In fact there appear only three positions still uncertain in Sampaoli’s 35: Franco Armani and Nahuel Guzman will contest the role of fourth goalkeeper; one of Enzo Perez, Matias Kranevitter and Guido Pizarro will offer a midfield option and one of Diego Perotti, Ricardo Centurión and Alejandro Gomez will be an additional forward.


Masoud Shojaei has already played at two World Cups and should head to Russia as Iran’s captain, but the AEK Athens midfielder has only just returned to the squad after a seven-month absence. His problems began when he played for his previous club Panionios in a Europa League qualifier away against Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel. Iran’s deputy sports minister called for Shojaei to be banned from the national team for life for playing against a club from a state Iran does not recognise, but so far Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese national coach, seems set on ignoring political pressure.


It seems a little weird now that Joe Hart was England’s first choice for much of the World Cup qualifying campaign, playing in the first nine fixtures before missing out for the final game, against Lithuania. But his form has been in decline for some time now, something that predated Pep Guardiola’s decision to expel him from Manchester City. He struggled at Torino and has had an inconsistent season with West Ham, combining spectacular reflex saves with desperate errors. The expectation now is that Jordan Pickford will be Englands first choice in Russia, with Jack Butland, who played in that Lithuania game as his first reserve. Nick Pope has had an exceptional season for Burnley and it may be that he gets the nod as third-choice over Hart, although the former number one can expect to be in the provisional squad.


Ten years ago, when Guus Hiddink’s Russia reached the semi-final of the European Championship, Igor Denisov looked one of the most promising holding midfielders in the world. His, though, has been a turbulent career, full of bust-ups with coaches. He fell out of favour at Zenit after complaining about the signing of expensive foreign players and then was transfer-listed by Dinamo for “interfering with the work of the head coach” Stanislav Cherchesov. Fabio Capello made him his Russia captain but after Cherchesov became national coach, there was no place for Denisov in the squad. The midfielder was fined earlier this year by his cub Lokomotiv for insulting a doping control officer and there seems no way back for him.

Personal relations with Cherchesov may cost the 6ft 5in Artem Dzyuba his place in the squad as well. The 29-year-old forward, who is on loan at Arsenal Tula from Zenit, has scored five goas in nine league games this year, but he hasn’t played for his country since October 2016. With Alexander Korkorin, a very different type of forward, injured, it may be that Cherchesov decides he needs the experience and direct option offered by Dzyuba.


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Rafael Marquez has been such a fixture of the Mexico side, captaining El Tri at each of the last four World Cups, that the thought of them without the former Barcelona defender/midfielder at a major tournament seems unthinkable. Yet although his inclusion in the provisional squad is all but certain, Marquez has not played for the national side since the 2017 Confederations Cup and may not be able to go to Russia. Last year, Marquez was identified by the US Department of Treasury as a frontman for a drugs kingpin, leading to his accounts being frozen and various restrictions being placed on his movement. Those are now, gradually, being lifted.

"If I have to give him my spot,” said the forward Carlos Vela, “I’d let him have it. I think he deserves everything to close out his great career in a brilliant way and… if he goes he’ll surely be happy and the group will be too because we respect him a lot and he’s a person who always supports the team, even if it’s not on the field being with us will be important and he gives leadership that is unmatched in Mexican soccer.”


It wasn’t until April 5 that Manuel Neuer returned to full training having played only three league games all season. The Bayern goalkeeper has had three operations to repair a broken metatarsal. Neuer, the captain, with his capacity to operate outside his box and sweep up behind a high backline, is so central to Germany’s way of playing that he will be given every chance to prove his fitness, although the Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen is a more than adequate replacement.


Such is the depth of resources France have that a swathe of big-name players could miss out on their squad. Benjamin Mendy would probably be France’s first choice at left-back but has only just returned after a cruciate knee injury. The loss of form of PSG’s Florian Thauvin could open a path back into the team for him, though. Mendy’s former team-mate at Monaco, the right-back Djibril Sidibe, has missed the end of the season with a knee injury but could be back. Alexandre Lacazette, Moussa Sissoko and Dimitri Payet were all squad regulars but after poor seasons could miss out, while the winger Florian Thauvin is back in contention after rediscovering his zest after leaving Newcastle for Marseille.


There’s no doubt that Paolo Guerrero will be in the provisional squad, but the centre-forward, a mainstay of Peru for the past decade, only returned from a six-month suspension (reduced from a year on appeal) after testing positive for cocaine on May 3. The Flamengo forward maintains his innocence, claiming he is the victim of contaminated food, and has a second appeal to be heard at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. There is a greater doubt about the presence of the goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who had surgery on a problem with the cartilage in his knee in February, and returned slower than expected for his Mexican club side Veracruz.


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