Football: World Cup axe falls on big names as Alvaro Morata left out

From left: Alvaro Morata, Radja Nainggolan and Mauro Icardi are three notable omissions from the respective squads of Spain, Belgium and Argentina.
From left: Alvaro Morata, Radja Nainggolan and Mauro Icardi are three notable omissions from the respective squads of Spain, Belgium and Argentina.

Morata and Fabregas omitted by Spain; Nainggolan dropped, calls time on his international career

LONDON • One paid the price for a clash of personality with his national coach. Another was likely dropped due to his underwhelming club form. And the last appears to have been the unfortunate victim of the embarrassment of riches up front.

That was the harsh reality facing Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan and Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata as both were surprisingly left out of Belgium and Spain's World Cup squads, which were announced yesterday.

And Inter Milan forward Mauro Icardi appeared set to join the duo in missing out on Russia after Argentinian national broadcaster TyC Sports and daily Ole both reported yesterday that coach Jorge Sampaoli had no place for the joint-top scorer in Serie A this term, with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristian Pavon and Paulo Dybala all preferred.

Morata was left to rue a disappointing debut season in the Premier League as Spain coach Julen Lopetegui picked forwards Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno, along with Atletico Madrid's Diego Costa.

"The decision is always difficult because of the talent of the players we have," Lopetegui said. "We have opted for three other players who had different assets and including four players up front was not something we wanted to do."

Two more Chelsea players also missed out as defender Marcos Alonso and midfielder Cesc Fabregas were not included in the 23-man group. Alonso lost out to Arsenal's Nacho Monreal, while Fabregas fell behind Spain's impressive wealth of midfield options, including Saul Niguez, Koke, Thiago Alacantara and veteran Andres Iniesta.

Morata's absence was the standout decision, however, even if it was not entirely surprising, given the 25-year-old's scoring slump.

QUESTIONING THE DECISION

We must be the only country in the world to be making the trip without one of the best players in the world. This is not the way to become world champions.

PHILIPPE ALBERT, ex-Belgium international, on the absence of midfielder Radja Nainggolan from the squad.

"I'm not going to name anybody, but there are players who had to find out from me that they were not going to be on the list," Lopetegui added.

In contrast, Aspas and Moreno have been in excellent form for Celta Vigo and Valencia respectively, with Aspas the top Spanish scorer this season on 22 goals.

Costa is expected to start when Spain open against Portugal in Group B on June 15, but Aspas, with his speed and direct running, remains an attractive option.

One Blues defender, Cesar Azpilicueta did make the team, while Manchester United's David de Gea was included as expected, along with fellow goalkeepers Pepe Reina and Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Dani Carvajal, Alvaro Odriozola, Gerard Pique, captain Sergio Ramos, Nacho and Jordi Alba complete Spain's defensive unit.

"I've had several doubts, making a list of 23 is very difficult," Lopetegui said. "But we have decided this was the most balanced decision and the one we think will help us most at the World Cup."

Nainggolan reacted to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez's shock World Cup snub by calling time on his international career yesterday.

Despite past clashes over discipline and a strained relationship, Martinez insisted he took the "sad and difficult" decision for "purely tactical reasons".

The combative 30-year-old, who is hugely popular in his homeland, wrote on Instagram that the decision to quit the national side gave him "much pain in my heart" and that "unfortunately, being real is not enough for some people".

Martinez also opted to give fresher faces a chance, with the inclusion of midfielders Adnan Januzaj, 23, from Real Sociedad and 21-year-old Youri Tielemans from Monaco.

The decision to omit Nainggolan was criticised by former Belgium international Philippe Albert.

"We must be the only country in the world to be making the trip without one of the best players in the world. This is not the way to become world champions," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2018, with the headline 'World Cup axe falls on big names'. Print Edition | Subscribe