World Cup thunders over horizon with fatigue and fitness fears looming large

Short gap between first phase of interrupted club season and beginning of Qatar tournament proving problem for players and managers alike

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With a quarter of an hour left at the Parc des Princes, the substitution boards went up and down in quick succession. There is often a ceremonial aspect to Paris Saint-Germain’s victories, when huge leads have been built by midway into the second half, and the rest and rotation routine begins.

PSG were 3-0 up by the 75th minute of Sunday’s meeting with Auxerre, five points clear at the top of Ligue 1, and Lionel Messi, among others, had a plane to the Gulf to catch.

Messi came off, and so did Neymar, after demonstrating their fitness and setting down another mark of good form. When PSG scored the first of their unanswered five goals – a Kylian Mbappe strike after 11 minutes – it was the 30th on the trot in which Messi, Neymar or Mbappe have been directly involved.

No sign of readiness for a World Cup that begins on Sunday is more welcome to the coaches of Messi’s Argentina, who play a warm-up match against the UAE on Wednesday, Neymar’s Brazil, or Mbappe’s France. It’s a principal reason why Brazil, France and Argentina are judged as the three top favourites to triumph in Qatar.

For Didier Deschamps, France’s manager, there seemed to be more good news with the substitutions. Presnel Kimpembe came on as Messi, Neymar and Sergio Ramos waved goodbye to this segment of the club season.

Kimpembe, a central defender who captained France in his last international, had been suffering with an Achilles problem, on the back of a hamstring injury. He had played just 70 minutes of football since September 10th. He added 15 minutes against Auxerre but by the next morning sensed there was something wrong.

On Monday, France deemed his recovery “insufficient” and announced Kimpembe would be replaced in their squad by Axel Disasi of Monaco.

Defender Presnel Kimpembe has become the latest France player to drop out of coach Didier Deschamps' World Cup squad. AFP

These late adjustments make managers anxious, and Deschamps – who is sweating on the fitness of Raphael Varane, his first-choice centre-back, and is already without N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, his all-conquering midfield duo at the last World Cup – speaks for all his peers when he complains of the short gap between the first phase of the interrupted club season and the beginning of this World Cup.

“There is no preparation time,” Deschamps told reporters. “For Brazil [2014], we had 28 days, for Russia [2018] 24. This time we get a week. From a sporting point of view, it’s not reasonable.”

Nor is he convinced by the argument that because players will come to Qatar 2022 having played far less than half their league seasons, they will be fresher.

“In terms of physical condition, the players should be less tired than in June, but the fact is the club calendar has been overloaded since August. There are many more injuries than usual because there’s been a constant run of three club matches a week. Bodies are under strain.”

Not least the bodies of probably the most valued footballers from Asia and from sub-Saharan Africa. At the start of this month – only three weeks before South Korea's tournament opener against Uruguay – their superstar Son Heung-min fractured a cheekbone playing for Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League.

South Korea talisman Son Heung-min fractured his cheekbone playing for Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League. AP

The serial Asian Footballer of the Year is in a race against time to be healed enough from surgery to take part in the only World Cup that will be staged in the Asian Confederation during the span of his career. And 12 days before Senegal open their campaign, their figurehead striker Sadio Mane sustained a calf injury in Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga victory over Werder Bremen. The reigning African Player of the Year is a doubtful starter for Monday’s meeting with the Netherlands.

Injury casualties such as Son and Mane preyed on other players’ minds as the club season closed over the last week. Some even admitted it.

After coming through Real Madrid’s bruising Liga victory against Cadiz, Brazil’s Vinicius Junior posted a grateful message: “Another game without injury.” He should be fit to sprint down the flanks of the Lusail Stadium next Thursday, and expecting some tough marking from Serbian defenders. He is used to it. No player in Europe’s leading leagues is more fouled than Vinicius, although his compatriot Neymar runs him close on that count.

Neymar greeted his 75th-minute substitution against Auxerre with a degree of relief that no harm had come to him. He had felt some muscular discomfort in the previous week during practice. Messi had missed the previous match with some tenderness in his calf.

“I wanted to give a rest to Leo and Neymar,” said PSG manager Christophe Galtier of his substitutions. “Everybody wanted to play and it was probably me, not the players, who was most concerned about the World Cup. But it was a perfect afternoon.”

Neymar, Messi and Mbappe now hope for a perfect, and healthy, World Cup.

Updated: November 15, 2022, 2:35 AM
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