The World Cup in Qatar is finally set to get underway, but there are a number of major players who will be watching along with the fans back home.
An unfortunate reality about the tournament is there will always be significant absences, either through a nation’s failure to qualify or due to injury.
It is the latter that has been a major focus in the final week before Sunday’s kick-off, with Senegal star Sadio Mane and France striker Karim Benzema both being late withdrawals from their respective squads, the latter suffering a quadriceps injury on Saturday, depriving the tournament of the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner.
Benzema’s injury is just one of several significant blows for holders France, and they dominate Stats Perform’s injured XI of the players unable to feature in Qatar.
Goalkeeper: Mike Maignan (France)
Maignan had a fine maiden season at Milan after joining from Lille. He kept 17 clean sheets in Serie A last term, the highest tally in the league, and conceded just 21 goals, with his save percentage of 79.4 the best of any Serie A goalkeeper to play more than 10 games in the competition.
He has made seven appearances this season, but the 27-year-old suffered a calf injury in October, leaving Didier Deschamps shorn of a quality shot-stopper to challenge Hugo Lloris.
Defence: Ben Chilwell (England), Reece James (England), Presnel Kimpembe (France)
Chelsea duo Reece James and Ben Chilwell were by no means guaranteed to start for England, but it’s still a blow to Gareth Southgate not to have the pair available.
James has excelled at wing-back and would have been an ideal fit if England stick with a three-man defence, while he could also have slotted in at centre-back, and Chilwell would likely offer more attacking threat than Luke Shaw on the left should the Three Lions have needed to chase a game.
Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe helped France win the 2018 World Cup, but he had to withdraw from Deschamps’ squad for Qatar due to an Achilles problem.
Midfield: N’Golo Kante (France), Giovani Lo Celso (Argentina), Paul Pogba (France), Georginio Wijnaldum (Netherlands)
Giovani Lo Celso was not always a key player for Tottenham but retained his place as a crucial cog for Argentina. La Albiceleste will be without the midfielder, who sustained a hamstring injury while playing for Villarreal against Athletic Bilbao late in October.
Georginio Wijnaldum scored three goals in four games for the Netherlands at Euro 2020, but shortly after joining Roma on loan from PSG, the former Liverpool midfielder suffered a fractured tibia and had no chance of recovering in time to make Louis van Gaal’s squad.
Another two France stars complete the midfield, with Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante missing for Les Bleus. Both players were exceptional in 2018, but Kante is out with a hamstring problem, while Pogba is yet to make an appearance for Juventus this season after joining from Manchester United.
Attack: Karim Benzema (France), Sadio Mane (Senegal), Christopher Nkunku (France)
It’s fair to say France have been hit hardest by injuries to big players, and there could arguably be none bigger than Benzema, the Ballon d’Or holder. Given he is 34, it could well have been the Real Madrid striker’s final shot at a World Cup and is a huge blow not only to France but to football fans around the world who were highly anticipating the Benzema-Kylian Mbappe link-up.
A player who might have softened the blow of Benzema’s injury was Christopher Nkunku, had he not already been ruled out himself with a knee issue sustained in training last week, just before Les Bleus left for Qatar. Nkunku has been in sensational form for RB Leipzig, with only Mbappe of players from Europe’s top five leagues having scored more goals (58) since the start of last season than the RB Leipzig star, who has amassed 52 in 75 games.
Mane, meanwhile, was carrying the hopes of Senegal on his shoulders. The Africa Cup of Nations holders have a talented squad, but Mane was the stardust. He went down with an injury to his fibula while in action for Bayern Munich just before the World Cup break, and though Senegal named the ex-Liverpool attacker in their squad, he underwent surgery earlier this week and was duly ruled out.