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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

From Barkley at Chelsea to Wagner at Bayern Munich, players on the move in bid to stake World Cup claims

Costa and Gomez also among the players to start fresh this month aiming to earn places in their respective national teams.

Sandro Wagner is back at Bayern Munich and will look to use the club as a platform to become Germany's No 9 for the 2018 World Cup. Karim Jaafar / AFP
Sandro Wagner is back at Bayern Munich and will look to use the club as a platform to become Germany's No 9 for the 2018 World Cup. Karim Jaafar / AFP

It is an attractive vacancy, and perhaps the sort of high-end job you would not expect to see advertised, unfilled, so near to the deadline.

But it’s there, loud and bold. Applicants are invited to apply for the following position: Centre-forward for the world champions; relevant experience preferred. Willingness to accept a fresh challenge a recommendation. Excellent prospect of a major prize.

In just over five months’ time, Germany will begin their defence of the World Cup and quite a lot would have to go wrong between now and then to remove the reigning champions from a shortlist of the top three or four favourites to win at Russia 2018.

If they can find their expert target man, a penalty box predator with goals guaranteed, then the holders would look at least on par with the likes of Brazil, Spain or France to take the title.

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Two candidates for the role have been on the move in the Bundesliga in the January transfer window, hoping a change of club will jump-start their careers towards the kind of impact that can persuade Joachim Low that he can finesse his 23-man squad with a match-winning centre-forward. The Germany manager has spent the past four years cultivating an enviable strength in depth of outstanding goalkeepers, solid and sophisticated defenders and a catalogue of creative midfielders.

Bayern Munich have signed Sandro Wagner this month from Hoffenheim, and the tall 29-year-old, who joins a club where Robert Lewandowski has established himself as perhaps the game’s finest No 9, has set out his ambition: “I have a goal to be in Russia this summer, and that makes this next half of the season very important for me.”

Wagner actually began as a professional at Bayern, but left a decade ago in search of greater opportunity. He has been a late bloomer, and only made the first of his seven international appearances last summer.

But five Germany goals in that time have encouraged his heightened ambitions. Bayern paid around €13 million (Dh57m) for him and, with Lewandowski recovering from a patella injury, may well put him straight into thestarting team on Friday night at Bayer Leverkusen.

Mario Gomez, meanwhile, is another be hoping to catch the eye of Low over the 17 matches that remain of the Bundesliga season. Gomez has made 10 times as many appearances as Wagner, and has been filling the role of centre-forward off and on for Germany for over a decade.

He has 31 international goals, but missed the World Cup triumph with injury. His hope, at 32, is to play a part in the defence of the title and sees his January move, from Wolfsburg to Stuttgart, as a stimulus. Like Wagner, Gomez is effectively going back to his roots. He started at Stuttgart and made his Germany debut as a player there.

In the current transfer window, homing instincts are acting powerfully. Diego Costa has just embarked on his third spell with Atletico Madrid, having rejoined the club where he won a Primera Liga title after falling out with the management at Chelsea, where he won two Premier Leagues.

Costa, born in Brazil but a Spain international, has his first goals - and first red card - in his latest Atletico incarnation. After six months without football, he also has a World Cup mission: to gain the sort of form that makes him Spain’s likeliest alternative at centre-forward to Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata come June or perhaps as their best option up front.

Then there’s Chelsea’s latest recruit. Ross Barkley has also had six months of inaction because of injury and a deteriorating relationship with Everton, who have sold him for £15m (Dh74.3m). Barkley was a teenager when he played at the 2014 World Cup, identified as the exciting future playmaker for England.

Barkley’s career has verged from the fast lane since, but a run of form with Chelsea would put him in strong contention for Russia. He is only 24, and as Conte enthused, ahead of weighing up Barkley’s fitness for a possible inclusion in his plans for this weekend: “We are talking about a player of great potential. We have five months to show he deserves a call-up for the World Cup.”