World Cup 2018: Roberto Martinez puts out Radja Nainggolan's fire as Belgium go a different way

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Not World Cup-bound: Radja Nainggolan.

He only turned 30 earlier this month and is still highly regarded as one of the game’s most dynamic midfield forces but Belgium will have to do without Radja Nainggolan’s explosiveness at the World Cup.

The decision to exclude the Roma star from the 28-man squad list sparked some incendiary responses. Former Belgian international Philippe Albert didn’t pull any punches.

“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.

Despite the slightly harsh delivery, Albert certainly has a point. Nainggolan has been sensational for Roma again this season and was voted their best player. The all-action midfielder marries the defensive and offensive aspects of the game with complete authority.

According to Squawka, he has created more chances (196) and won more tackles (214) than any other Roma player in Serie A and the Champions League over the last three seasons.

Nainggolan reacted to the disappointing news of his omission by dropping a bomb of his own. The Belgian wasted no time announcing his international retirement after 30 appearances for his country.

He does have to shoulder some of the blame though given that he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory with his reputation off the pitch. Nainggolan was caught smoking and drinking on camera earlier this year.

There is also the fact that Martinez’s tactics for Belgium do not accommodate the lively midfielder’s specific style of play.

“I have put in place a specific system that works. I can’t use Radja in a secondary role.”

Playing a 3-4-2-1 system, Axel Witsel is chosen to partner Kevin De Bruyne in midfield while Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens support Romelu Lukaku up front. Martinez is clearly prioritising composure in the middle and thus condemning a fiery international career to a tepid end.

BELGIUM 28-MAN SQUAD:

Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels, Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Matz Sels;

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld, Dedryck Boyata, Laurent Ciman, Leander Dendoncker, Christian Kabasele, Vincent Kompany, Jordan Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen;

Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, Thomas Meunier, Youri Tielemans, Axel Witsel;

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke, Eden Hazard, Thorgan Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens.

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Three line-ups Spain boss Julen Lopetegui could select at the World Cup

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At the helm since July 2016: Julen Lopetegui.

The 2010 World Cup champions head into the 2018 edition of the event with a tag of strong contenders once again, but not out-and-out favourites.

La Roja are blessed with quality all over the pitch, so much so that there was no room for Chelsea trio Alvaro Morata, Cesc Fabregas and Marcos Alonso, nor Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin, Aletico Madrid forward Vitolo and Bayern Munich mainstay Javi Martinez.

But, this isn’t about the players who failed to book a seat on the plane to Russia. Indeed, on paper, few nations can match an embarrassment of riches which includes nine Real Madrid and Barcelona stars combined.

Julen Lopetegui may have been a surprise appointment back in 2016 when he was tasked with following-up the success of retiring Vicente del Bosque, but the Spain coach saw his team through qualifying with ease and has gone 18 games unbeaten since taking the reins.

In Group B, Cristiano Ronaldo‘s Portugal are up first and then Iran and Morocco make up what is arguably one of the toughest set of fixtures in the tournament.

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 27: Isco of Spain celebrates after scoring his sides third goal during the International Friendly between Spain and Argentina at Wanda Metropolitano on March 27, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Isco netted a hat-trick at the Wanda Metropolitano against Argentina back in March.

BOLD

Spain’s best, most experienced and quality-laden first XI is enough to beat most sides in world football, though it is arguably not as strong as previous years.

Still, Lopetegui’s preferred 4-5-1 system will no doubt be employed in Russia, made up of three narrow central midfield players with one of them more defensively-minded, and then two wingers-cum-forwards supporting a lone striker in the form of Diego Costa.

The tenacity and physicality of the Atletico Madrid hitman gives Spain a focal point in attack which they have be known to almost dismiss or just not be too fussed about in the past. He gives them a presence they will need in a difficult Group B while Isco – a good fit with his technical ability and vision from the left – provides ammunition.

The Whites star carries the burden of a Xavi of old, though in equal measure, David Silva – after a mesmerising season at City – still possesses serious powers of skill despite being 32 years of age and having had the mileage of 119 caps. Don’t forget, Andres Iniesta is still around too.

With Spain’s preferred best back four set in stone and unlikely to change given the genuine lack of replacements aside from Cesar Azpilicueta to come in, that in itself should give their famed midfield axis a degree of comfort knowing each of them is happy to be in possession.

Spain lack pace and movement in the engine room but they have never relied on that kind of ingenuity. Built on the robustness of ball retention, five to 10 yard passes, the ability to keep a settled shape and then the capability of creating something out of nothing, it is a key area of the pitch which could define their chances.

Blaugrana legend Iniesta brings a wealth of experience for his last hurrah on the international stage while Thiago and Koke – both have legs – and are reliable lieutenants to provide the heartbeat of this team as we saw during the 6-1 thumping of Argentina back in March.


CONSERVATIVE

Spain will consider their opening World Cup clash against Portugal as a must not lose, as well as must-win. La Roja will not want to create any unnecessary pressure with an open or extravagant system, reminiscent of what happened when they were crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands in game one four years ago.

To ensure this, Lopetegui could tweak the make-up of his personnel and adjust his 4-5-1 formation, opting for the more traditional version of that tactic.

A player of Saul Niguez’s intensity, with the ability to break-up possession, track back and tackle could be preferred to bringing Sergio Busquets in from the cold. He also brings more energy than the ageing Iniesta.

The Atleti star could lead a dynamic and destructive three alongside Koke and Thiago while Isco – operating in a left-midfield role – would be tasked at holding his line and occasionally drifting inside to allow runs from Jordi Alba up and down the flank.

Playing in this way would limit Isco’s creative expression and rely on him working hard to chase and harry. It’s something he is capable of and they are very much attributes his Los Blancos team-mate Lucas Vasquez offers on the opposite flank.

Costa, again, has more strength and power than Marco Asensio and can always get back to defend, though he would need to control his aggression.

BALANCED

Ultimately, the substance of Spain’s 23-man squad exudes calm, maturity and an acute tactical understanding of their own job role, each other’s and what their coach wants.

That can only bring balance and authority to a side that is used to winning things, and toppling teams. As with the case of the first two elevens here, don’t expect the backline to change unless Carvajal suffers a reoccurrence of the hamstring injury which has affected his end to the season with Madrid.

The inclusion of Busquets – a man boasting over a century of caps but is still only 29 – is about as good a back-up as any team could comprehend in midfield. He doesn’t get many headlines but was perhaps only behind Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Samuel Umtiti and Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the performance stakes during Ernesto Valverde side’s double-winning campaign.

With a solid midfield three, inclusive of Isco’s powers of imagination, the option is to give Asensio the chance to shine on the wing. Spain have lacked width and out-and-out pace over the years – and although Spain always tend to play through central areas – the 22-year-old offers something different and in turn could work well in tandem with Silva.

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Alvaro Morata among the stars to miss out from Spain's World Cup squad

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Frustrating season: Alvaro Morata.

Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata is absent from the Spain squad that will travel to the World Cup.

The 25-year-old managed only 11 league goals for the Blues in the recently concluded season and only appeared as a last-minute substitute in Saturday’s FA Cup final victory over Manchester United.

United goalkeeper David de Gea, Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta, Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal and David Silva of Manchester City are the Premier League players who have made Julen Lopetegui’s 23-man squad.

Morata, who struggled during his debut campaign at Stamford Bridge, is joined by his Chelsea team-mates Cesc Fabregas and Marcos Alonso in missing out on a ticket to Russia.

Shortly after the list was revealed on Monday, Morata tweeted:

Arsenal full-back Hector Bellerin, Atletico Madrid forward Vitolo and Bayern Munich midfielder Javi Martinez are also surprise omissions.

El Clasico stars Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Isco, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Lucas Vazquez, Jordi Alba, Nacho and Dani Carvajal will fly the flag for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The scorer of the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, Iniesta on Sunday played his last game for Barca after a 16-year spell at the Nou Camp.

Former Chelsea striker Diego Costa, now back at Atletico, has made the cut after plundering seven goals for the capital club following his return to eligibility in January.

Head coach Lopetegui said in quotes carried by the Spanish national team’s official Twitter account: “We have decided that this is the squad that will serve us best. It’s been difficult, because beyond this list of names are the dreams of a nation.

“We are taking the squad which we consider to be the best one. Whatever we’re going to achieve at the World Cup, we’ll do it with this group.”

Spain will tackle Portugal, Iran and Morocco in Group B, with their first match against Cristiano Ronaldo and company taking place on June 15 in Sochi.

Spain’s 23-man World Cup squad: Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Dani Carvalhal (Real Madrid), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), David de Gea (Manchester United), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Isco (Real Madrid), Kepa (Athletic Bilbao), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Nacho (Real Madrid), Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid), Alvaro Odriozola (Real Sociedad), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Jose Reina (Napoli), Rodrigo (Valencia), David Silva (Manchester City), Thiago (Bayern Munich), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid).

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