Football: Top XI players who will be missing at Russia 2018

The official ball of Fifa World Cup 2018, Telstar 18, on the pitch during Spain's training before their friendly match against Russia on Nov 13, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Last Wednesday (Nov 15) saw Peru claim the final World Cup place as the 32 teams for the showpiece tournament from June 14 to July 15 next year were finalised. The group-stage draw will be held on Dec 1 in Moscow and there will be more than a few footballers staring wistfully at their TV screens that day. The Straits Times looks at the top XI players who will be missing at Russia 2018.

1) Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)

The legendary Juventus custodian ended his 20-year international career on 175 caps after the Azzurri suffered the ignominy of being the first Italian side to not qualify for the World Cup since 1958. Still, the 39-year-old can look back with pride, having won football's biggest prize in 2006.

2) Left-back: David Alaba (Austria)

Austria, despite being tipped as contenders, had a disastrous qualifying campaign as they finished behind table-toppers Serbia, Ireland and Wales but the Bayern Munich star could not be faulted for his efforts. A versatile player who is equally comfortable playing further up the field, Alaba's ability to bomb up and down marks him out as a quintessential modern-day full-back.

3) Right-back: Antonio Valencia (Ecuador)

One of Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho's most trusted lieutenants on the pitch, the experienced Valencia had an outstanding campaign last season which culminated in the Ecuadorean being named as his club's player of the year. The national skipper, however, could not galvanise his country with a winless run dating back to November 2016 costing La Tricolor dear in the ultra-competitive South American qualifying group.

4) Centre-back: Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)

Together with club team-mates Buffon and Andrea Barzagli, the trio announced their retirement from international football following Italy's failure to reach the World Cup Finals. A hard-nosed seasoned defender schooled in the arts of catenaccio, the Azzurri's miserly defence was the only positive to be taken from their disastrous campaign.

5) Centre-back: Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)

The Azzurri captain decided not to follow in the footsteps of his former Juventus colleagues in stepping away from the national side but at 30, the possibility of a third Finals appearance after South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014 seems to be a long shot. Italy will have to draw on all his experience marshalling a well-drilled backline as they seek to rebuild their tattered reputation and expect the AC Milan defender to be a guiding light as they enter unchartered territory.

6) Midfielder: Arturo Vidal (Chile)

The powerhouse will be a big miss in Russia with his all-action displays in the centre of the park. A fan favourite at every club he has been at, Vidal was left heartbroken as Copa America champions La Roja paid the price for an ageing squad that seemed to run out of steam at crucial moments during qualifying. The Bayern Munich midfielder has, however, decided not to call it a day, claiming on Instagram that Chile still had "much to fight for and is a team of warriors".

7) Midfielder: Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)

Slovakia missed out a World Cup play-off place despite finishing second to England in Group F as they had the least points out of all the runners-up. The Napoli captain, who won his century of caps in qualifying against Scotland, remains the focal point of his country since his debut a decade ago, but his national team-mates are not on the same level.

8) Midfielder: Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

The Juventus schemer runs the Bosnia and Herzegovina engine room with his intricate passing, ability to set the tempo, poise in retaining possession and dead-ball prowess. Bosnia were disappointed to have finished behind second-placed Greece in Group H, despite Pjanic's link-up play with striker Edin Dzeko proving to be a potent partnership.

9) Forward: Alexis Sanchez (Chile)

The livewire Arsenal forward is a bundle of energy up front with his relentless pressing never giving defenders a moment's rest. His ability to create something out of nothing makes Sanchez a special player. Like team-mate Vidal, Sanchez thrives on carrying the pressure of expectation and never shirks responsibility, and those qualities will be absent as Chile won't get the chance to replicate their last-16 performances from the last two World Cups.

10) Forward: Arjen Robben (Netherlands)

The veteran Dutch winger brought the curtain down on his glittering international career following the Netherlands' failure to qualify ahead of France and Sweden, having scored 37 times in 96 appearances and helping them reach the 2010 World Cup final . The Bayern Munich star had already targeted next year's World Cup Finals as his final Oranje tournament, and it would have been a befitting stage for Robben to call it a day but it was not to be.

11) Forward: Gareth Bale (Wales)

It's been a yet another injury-plagued season for Wales talisman Gareth Bale and the Dragons could not call upon his services in their final two qualifying games - one of which was a winner-takes-all clash against Ireland in Cardiff which they lost 0-1. The Real Madrid forward could only watch from the sidelines as his presence was sorely missed not just for that game but throughout, having endured a stop-start campaign. Wales must be wondering what if.

Substitutes: Jan Oblak (Slovenia), Faouzi Ghoulam (Algeria), Virgil van Dijk (Netherlands), Marco Verratti (Italy), Naby Keita (Guinea), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon).

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