Cristiano Ronaldo insists he will be the one to decide if the 2022 World Cup is the last of his career, as Portugal prepare for their crucial play-off with North Macedonia.

With Ronaldo turning 37 last month, there is understandable speculation around whether this year's edition of FIFA's showpiece event could represent the last to involve the Portugal captain, who has already appeared at four editions of the World Cup.

One more tournament appearance would see Ronaldo join Lothar Matthaus, Rafael Marquez, Gianluigi Buffon and Antonio Carbajal in having gone to five different finals – although Buffon did not play when he was named in the Italy squad in 1998.

Ronaldo's 115 goals in 185 Portugal appearances represent a record in men's internationals, and the Manchester United striker says only he will decide if the 2022 World Cup represents his last.

"I'm starting to see that many of you ask the same question," Ronaldo replied to reporters at Monday's pre-match press conference.

"I'm the one who's going to decide my future, nobody else. 

"If I feel like playing more games, I'll play; if I don't feel like playing more, I don't play. I'm in charge, period."

 

Portugal's nervy 3-1 win over Turkey on Thursday left them within one win of sealing qualification for Qatar 2022, and the Selecao are hot favourites to do so after North Macedonia dumped out European champions Italy to book their own place in the play-off final.

Ronaldo, while warning Portugal's opponents deserved respect, claims Fernando Santos' team "will beat any team in the world" if they play at their best level.

"We know that they are a very well organised team," the 37-year-old added. "They have their strengths. 

"We respect them, but I think that if Portugal are at the best level, they will beat any team in the world. 

"[It is the] game of our lives, too, not just for Macedonia. I hope the stadium can respond in the best way, with a very strong atmosphere throughout the 90 minutes."

Meanwhile, Coach Santos shrugged off suggestions he was pleased to face North Macedonia for a place in Qatar, rather than Italy, saying he was simply happy with his own side's result against Turkey.

"I'm not happy [not to play Italy]," the 67-year-old said. "I'm happy that Portugal beat Turkey and played a good game. It was a tough opponent, we knew we had to win. 

"We'll do everything we can to be present at the World Cup."

Portugal have not failed to qualify for a major tournament since missing out on the 1998 World Cup in France, featuring at each of the past five editions of world football's most celebrated competition.

It's almost taken for granted that the best players in football appear at the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup.

But look a little closer, and we can see that is just not the case. Every four years there are a handful of big names who miss out, usually those born to countries without the same footballing pedigree as the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain.

There are even countless greats who, down the years, have failed to register a single appearance at a World Cup finals. Either they've been something of an anomaly in terms of the quality available to their country at a given time, injury has struck, or the coach simply hasn't picked them. Alfredo di Stefano, Ryan Giggs, George Best, Eric Cantona all enjoyed illustrious careers without playing in a World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski have at least all appeared at previous editions of the tournament, so this week's qualifying climax in Europe isn't exactly the only opportunity they have to ensure they represent their respective countries on the grandest stage.

But, given their ages, it has to be considered likely that Qatar 2022 will be the last World Cup at which any of them appear.

Waiting to make their mark

Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski have, obviously, enjoyed incredible careers. At club and international level, both have titles and records practically coming out of their ears.

Lewandowski already has more caps (128) and goals (74) for Poland than anyone else ever, while Ibrahimovic is Sweden's all-time top scorer (62).

Historically, both strikers are their respective nations' most-recognisable footballers, and surely the most talented they've ever produced.

Yet, one cannot say either of them has ever caused much of a stir at a World Cup.

Of course, neither Ibrahimovic nor Lewandowski has ever played in a senior international team that would be considered a challenger for major honours – in fact, each of them has only ever featured at one World Cup.

Ibrahimovic was a part of the Sweden team that got to the last 16 of the 2006 edition, while Lewandowski made his World Cup bow four years ago in Russia.

Sweden coach Janne Andersson opted against offering Ibrahimovic a way out of international retirement ahead of the 2018 World Cup, but he did eventually return in March last year. He will be 41 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around in November.

Lewandowski will be 34, so it's by no means outside the realm of possibility that he'll make an appearance in 2026, particularly if we look at Ibrahimovic's longevity.

But there won't be room for both of them in Qatar. Tuesday's play-off final in Chorzow pits Poland and Sweden against each other for the right to secure passage to the finals and what could be a last World Cup appearance for one of these two all-time greats.

No one will be expecting Sweden or Poland to go deep into the tournament, given neither has been beyond the last eight since 1994. But it would seem a travesty if players as good as Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic never managed to score at a World Cup.

Primed for World Cup number five, unless…

While Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski are still waiting to make a memorable impact at a World Cup, Ronaldo will be featuring at a fifth assuming he and Portugal qualify.

Ronaldo first appeared at the 2006 World Cup, something few England fans will forget given his role in Wayne Rooney's sending-off during their quarter-final tussle. Portugal went on to win 3-1 on penalties after a 0-0 draw, with Ronaldo netting the decisive spot-kick.

They finished fourth that year, but in the three tournaments since, Portugal haven't got beyond the last 16.

While Portugal's success at Euro 2016 means Ronaldo should never have his international legacy questioned in future, that World Cup record must be something he is keen to improve.

Additionally, Qatar 2022 looks likely to be the last time a certain rivalry can dominate headlines in a major tournament.

Lionel Messi has already helped Argentina secure a place and, given their 30-match unbeaten run and the fact they head to Qatar as South American champions, there's every reason to expect La Albiceleste will be an entirely different proposition compared to the team at Russia 2018.

While Messi and Ronaldo have shown signs of decline this term at club level, they remain fundamental for their respective national teams – but this surely won't be the case in 2026.

Qatar 2022 should offer Ronaldo the chance to boost his World Cup goals record of seven in 17 games. While by no means poor, a player of such self-belief will surely be aiming for more.

 

Those leading the way appear out of reach, barring an utterly freak showing from Ronaldo. Miroslav Klose (16) holds the record for most World Cup goals, while the 'other/original/Brazilian' Ronaldo is just behind on 15. Then there are other greats Gerd Muller (14), Just Fontaine (13) and Pele (12).

Reaching double figures would seem a realistic target and at least put him in great company, with only 13 players reaching 10 World Cup goals in the tournament's history.

Similarly, that would also make him Portugal's most-prolific World Cup player, with Eusebio currently holding that record thanks to his nine strikes, all of which came in 1966.

Of course, it's by no means a given that Ronaldo or Portugal will make it. Up next for them on Tuesday in their play-off final are North Macedonia.

Fernando Santos' side will undoubtedly favour themselves, but North Macedonia have already shocked European champions Italy – who's to say they can't stun Portugal as well?

Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has put his failure to land a Ballon d'Or award down to not fitting the "Mr Perfect" mould of perennial winners Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Despite registering over 500 club goals for the likes of Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, Ibrahimovic has never finished in the top three of the voting for the prestigious individual prize.

The Sweden international's highest finish came in 2013 when claiming fourth place behind Franck Ribery, Messi and Ronaldo, the latter two having taken the award 12 times between them (Messi 7, Ronaldo 5).

Indeed, only Luka Modric in 2018 – after winning the Champions League with Real Madrid and playing a starring role in Croatia's run to the World Cup final – has broken that duopoly over the past 14 years.

But Ibrahimovic, who has not been afraid to air his thoughts across a remarkable 23-year career, does not believe the Ballon d'Or is awarded on footballing ability alone and therefore has no regrets about missing out.

"These are political awards. They want 'Mr Perfect'," he told Bild. "If you speak and say what you think, you can't get them.

"It's easy to give them to Mr Nice Guy. It doesn't change anything for me, it doesn't make me better or worse."

Ibrahimovic is continuing to prove his worth at the age of 40 with Milan and is reportedly in talks over signing a contract beyond the end of this season, when his existing deal is due to expire.

The Malmo academy product has won trophies in five different countries, including Italy, France, Spain and England, but he has never plied his trade in the German top flight.

While a move to Bayern Munich may now be out of the equation, Ibrahimovic revealed he has a soft spot for the reigning Bundesliga champions.

"I've always been curious about the Bundesliga," he said. "There are teams like Bayern Munich, an incredible club.

"Every time I played against them I could always see their facilities, the stadium, their organisation. The history of the club is impressive."

Cristiano Ronaldo's dip in goalscoring form is of no concern to Fernando Santos, who felt he was "tremendous" in Portugal's World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final success against Turkey. 

First-half efforts from Otavio and Diogo Jota put Portugal in control in Porto, but Burak Yilmaz pulled one back after the hour mark and had a chance to equalise from the penalty spot with five minutes remaining. 

However, Yilmaz missed the target from 12 yards and Matheus Nunes completed a 3-1 win for the hosts in stoppage time, with Ronaldo hitting the bar in the final act of the game. 

The Manchester United forward had five efforts on goal and hit the target with two of them. Diogo Jota (38), who played 20 minutes fewer than Ronaldo, was Portugal's only outfield starter with fewer touches than him (40).  

Ronaldo also failed to find the back of the net in Portugal's draw with the Republic of Ireland and the defeat to Serbia that cost Santos' men automatic qualification for Qatar. 

He has scored just four goals in his past 13 appearances in all competitions for club and country, but the Portugal boss is unconcerned by his displays. 

"Ronaldo is judged on the goals he scores, it's always that way," said Santos. 

"From my perspective, he played a tremendous game, bringing the group together, working and pressing with the intensity of the game. 

"He didn't score, but that doesn't invalidate what was an excellent performance for Ronaldo. He had several opportunities. He didn't convert them, but he opened up a lot of spaces for others and that's something to highlight."

Ronaldo is one of several veterans in the side that it has been suggested should be phased out by Santos to make way for a new generation, but the coach spoke out in defence of the more experienced options at his disposal. 

"The one that everyone is asking to be replaced is the only golden generation. I'm very sorry to say this, but it is the only one that has brought a trophy to Portugal," he said. 

"Now, if you ask me if Portuguese football has a bright future ahead of it, with high-quality players capable of responding at any time, I'd say yes. 

"Portugal have always had great players, but the golden generation is the one that won the gold." 

Will it be Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane? Italy or Portugal – or indeed neither? Can Canada end their long wait, and are the United States and Australia at risk of missing out?

Those questions and plenty more are set to be answered over the next week or so as World Cup qualifying concludes for many nations.

Just 15 of the 32 participants have so far been confirmed for Qatar 2022, leaving 48 teams battling for the 17 remaining spots.

Fourteen more countries will be assured of a finals berth come the end of next week in what is very much crunch time for those still in contention.

Stats Perform looks at the key talking points.

Egypt seeking revenge in AFCON final repeat

Less than two months on from meeting in the Africa Cup of Nations final, Egypt and Senegal face off over two legs for a place in Qatar.

Senegal prevailed in a penalty shoot-out to claim their first AFCON crown and, buoyed by that triumph, will consider themselves as favourites here.

While both teams boast an array of top-class talent, this fixture is being billed as a showdown between Liverpool team-mates Salah and Mane.

The two biggest stars in African football, only one of the pair will be part of the World Cup later this year – and neither will fancy watching it all unfold from home.

This is not the only grudge match taking place in the CAF section over the next week and a half, as fierce rivals Ghana and Nigeria will also face off in a two-legged play-off.

Cameroon are up against Algeria, Mali take on Tunisia and DR Congo meet Morocco in the other three ties, each of which will be concluded on March 29.

European heavyweights on collision course

Since the play-off draw in the UEFA section took place in November, all talk has centered around a potential meeting between Italy and Portugal for a place in the finals.

The winners of the past two European Championships, either the Azzurri or the Selecao will miss out on the biggest tournament of them all.

It should never have been this way, of course, as both teams were strong favourites to finish top of their groups and qualify automatically.

Italy finished second to Switzerland and Portugal were runners-up to Serbia, meaning the sides must now come through two qualifying ties.

First up for the reigning European champions is a meeting with North Macedonia in Palermo, while Portugal face Turkey in Porto, with the winners of both ties advancing.

Should, as expected, Italy and Portugal come through those semi-finals, the latter will have the advantage of staging the final on home soil five days later.

For Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, it presents what will surely be his last chance to play at a record-equalling fifth World Cup.

 

Pathways impacted by political events

Path C of UEFA qualifying is undoubtedly the most eye-catching, but there are also some tasty fixtures in the other two sections – not least a possible Home Nations derby.

Scotland and Wales were kept apart in the Path B semi-finals but could meet in the final should they overcome Ukraine and Austria respectively.

However, due to ongoing events in Ukraine, their game against Scotland has been pushed back – likely until June – as has the final involving either Wales or Austria.

In Path C, Russia had been due to face Poland, but the invasion of Ukraine forced FIFA and UEFA's hand and they have been banned from competing.

Poland have therefore been handed a bye to the qualifying play-off final, where either Sweden or the Czech Republic await. That match will be contested next week as planned.

Canada on verge of ending long wait, USA with work to do

The United States qualified for every World Cup between 1990 and 2014, but they missed out on a place at Russia 2018 after an embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Gregg Berhalter's side are by no means assured of one of the three automatic qualification spots in the CONCACAF section this time around, either.

USA sit second with three games to go, but they still have to travel to third-placed Mexico, as well as facing Panama and Costa Rica, who occupy fourth and fifth respectively.

Level on points with Mexico and four ahead of Costa Rica, it could be a tense finale to qualifying for the Stars and Stripes.

That should not be the case for Canada, who are eight points clear of fourth and are all but assured of ending their 36-year wait to make a second World Cup finals appearance.

Brazil and Argentina through, but who will join them?

The drawn-out South American qualifiers are nearing their conclusion and only four of the 10 sides know their fate at this juncture.

It has been plain sailing for Brazil and Argentina, who are assured of an automatic qualifying spot with three games to go, including a rescheduled meeting between the pair.

Behind those perennial World Cup representatives are Ecuador, who have been the surprise package in qualifying and can finish no lower than fifth.

Ecuador will not be content with anything other than a top-four finish, though, and they can make certain of that with victory over Paraguay.

Assuming Ecuador get over the line, that will leave Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia battling it out for progression, which sets up some intriguing fixtures.

Uruguay occupy fourth place, meaning their qualifying aspirations are in their own hands, but they have Peru and Chile – the two sides behind them – still to face.

Socceroos sweating on finals spot

Only four teams advance automatically from the CONMEBOL section, with the team in fifth entering a play-off against the winner of the AFC fourth round in a one-off tie in June.

That may well turn out to be Australia as the Socceroos are five and four points behind top two Saudi Arabia and Japan in Group B with two games to go.

However, those remaining two fixtures are against those nations occupying automatic qualification places, so Australia may yet sneak through.

Iran and South Korea have already made certain of progression in Group A, meanwhile, leaving the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iraq to compete for third place.

The two third-placed finishers – which, as it stands, are Australia and the UAE – will meet in a one-legged match ahead of that aforementioned play-off with a CONMEBOL side.

Romelu Lukaku credited Cristiano Ronaldo for motivating him to find "another level" at Inter when the pair competed together in Serie A.

Lukaku led Inter to their first Scudetto in over a decade last season, scoring 24 league goals, before returning to former club Chelsea in a £97.5million (€115m) move ahead of the 2021-22 campaign.

The Belgium international is yet to hit the same lofty heights at Stamford Bridge, finding the net just five times in 19 league appearances this season, but his efforts at Inter continue to be recognised.

Lukaku has been named as the 2020-21 Footballer of the Year by the Italian Footballers Association, while former coach Antonio Conte and Inter were respectively honoured as Coach of the Year and Club of the Year.

Meanwhile, Chelsea man Lukaku was joined in the Top 11 for the season by Ronaldo, who scored 29 goals for Juventus before himself heading back to the Premier League with Manchester United.

Former Juventus forward Ronaldo was also announced as part of the team of the season, and Lukaku hailed the Portugal star for pushing him to achieve what he did at Inter.

"It's truly an honour to have been voted the best player and to have entered last year's Top 11 in Serie A," Lukaku said.

"I want to thank everyone who voted for me and especially my team-mates, because I think without the team I couldn't have made it. We won together, the coach was always next to us, as well as the club and the fans.

"Playing in Serie A was a dream I had since I was a child and I did everything necessary to win in Italy.

"Finding yourself in front of Cristiano Ronaldo is something that does not happen often, because for me he is in the top three of the best players in the history of football, a player who really took me to another level.

"This award gives me great confidence for the future."

Cristiano Ronaldo has been heavily linked with an early exit from Manchester United this season.

The Red Devils are out of the Premier League title race and struggling to make the top four.

There is said to be tension surrounding Ronaldo due to Ralf Rangnick's appointment as interim manager.

TOP STORY - RONALDO RE-COMMITS TO MAN UTD

Ronaldo will stay with United next season with interim manager Rangnick set to depart, reports AS.

The 37-year-old forward has committed to United, whom he joined in August on a two-year deal with the option for a third season, as he is confident they will show their ambition by making a major appointment with their new permanent manager.

United were eliminated from the Champions League this week by Atletico Madrid and are struggling to reach next season's edition, sitting fifth in the Premier League.

ROUND-UP

- Jesse Lingard has been offered to Italian clubs Milan and Roma as he prepares to leave United as a free agent, reports Nicolo Schira. West Ham  and Newcastle United are also interested in the 29-year-old England international.

- Benfica have slapped a £67million price tag on striker  Darwin Nunez , who is being pursued by Manchester United , Arsenal , Liverpool and Newcastle ,   according to The Mirror.

- Foot Mercato reports  Arsenal will enter the race to sign Real Madrid winger  Eden Hazard , with Chelsea previously linked to their former player.

- Fichajes claims  Atletico Madrid are considering a move for Athletic Bilbao head coach Marcelino should Diego Simeone opt to leave the Spanish champions.

Manchester City defender Ruben Dias has been left out of Portugal's squad for this month's crucial World Cup play-offs, as the 24-year-old continues his recovery from a hamstring injury.

The central defender has been out of action since sustaining the injury in the Premier League champions' FA Cup win over Peterborough United last month.

Fernando Santos will also be unable to call upon fellow injury absences Renato Sanches and Nelson Semedo, as he seeks to avoid being the first Portugal coach to fail to qualify for a major tournament since the country missed out on the 1998 World Cup in France.

After a last-gasp 2-1 loss to Serbia saw Portugal fail to qualify automatically for the World Cup, Portugal will host Turkey in a play-off semi-final on March 24, before the winner of that clash takes on either Italy or North Macedonia five days later for a place in Qatar.

Dias was named Premier League player of the season for the 2020-21 campaign, and has contributed to the league leaders keeping a joint-high 17 clean sheets in 29 top-flight games this term. 

In Dias' absence, uncapped Sporting CP defender Goncalo Inacio gets his second senior call-up, with 38-year-old Lille defender Jose Fonte and Porto's 39-year-old stalwart Pepe likely to form an experienced defensive partnership.

Cristiano Ronaldo, who has hit 115 goals in 184 appearances for his country's senior team, is one of three Manchester United players to make the squad, being joined by Diego Dalot and Bruno Fernandes.

Speaking to the press after announcing his squad, Santos emphasised the importance of the Turkey match, and insisted his 37-year-old captain remains a crucial part of his group.

"We have to win," said the Euro 2016 winner. "We have a goal, we have to fulfil it, it's a goal of the people. 

"All the national team's games will always be very important for the people. [We must] play for Portugal, as there have been others who have marked the history of Portuguese football.

"More important than anything is Portugal. That is the case for us and for the people that we are going to play for, and that also includes our captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who is a very important piece."

Although Dias will not play any part in the crucial match-up with Turkey, club team-mates Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva have both been named in Santos' squad.

Portugal squad: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Diogo Costa (FC Porto), Rui Patricio (Roma); Cedric Soares (Arsenal), Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Diogo Dalot (Manchester United), Goncalo Inacio (Sporting CP), Jose Fonte (Lille), Pepe (FC Porto), Nuno Mendes (Paris Saint-Germain), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund); Danilo Pereira (Paris Saint-Germain), Matheus Nunes (Sporting CP), William Carvalho (Real Betis), Ruben Neves (Wolves), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Joao Moutinho (Wolves), Otavio Monteiro (FC Porto); Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid), Diogo Jota (Liverpool), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Rafael Leao (Milan); Andre Silva (RB Leipzig), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United).

Lionel Messi's struggles this season have surprised Nicolas Anelka more than Cristiano Ronaldo's toils at faltering Manchester United.

Both players have endured dips in form, albeit they are judged against the absurdly high standards the pair have set for many years.

The stellar duo each suffered exits from the Champions League at the last-16 stage to compound disappointing campaigns, although Messi's Paris Saint-Germain look well set to win Ligue 1, in stark contrast to a United side who face a battle just to finish in the top four.

But while Ronaldo has maintained a respectable scoring record, with 12 goals in 24 Premier League games, Messi has netted just twice in the French top flight – a stage on which he was expected to shine.

Messi was jeered in his last outing for PSG, the club's fans still reeling from having seen their side throw away a two-goal aggregate lead to Real Madrid in Europe.

Anelka, who started his career at PSG, acknowledges the pair are bound to slow down after so long at the top, but has been more taken aback by the apparent decline of 34-year-old Messi than he has by the form of his 37-year-old nemesis.

"They have made their careers and I think they are both satisfied with what they have produced for 15 years,” Anelka told RMC's Rothen s'enflamme show. 

"I am more surprised by Messi than by Ronaldo.

"I thought that Messi was going to stroll in the French championship and that Ronaldo was going to struggle a little more because the Premier League, for me, is a more difficult championship in terms of the impact on and around the pitch.

"I think that there won't be any more players like that who will dominate world football so much. They've been above everyone for 15 years; it's logical to see them slowing down. It's normal."

Renan Lodi sent Atletico Madrid into the Champions League quarter-finals by securing a 1-0 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Tuesday. 

After a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the last-16 tie three weeks prior, Lodi's first-half header clinched a 2-1 aggregate success for LaLiga's reigning champions. 

Anthony Elanga scored United's goal in Madrid but missed an early chance to convert a pass from Bruno Fernandes, who returned to the line-up following a positive COVID-19 test. 

Atletico sat back and made life difficult for United after Lodi's first Champions League goal, which was enough to send them into the last eight for the second time in three seasons. 

Jan Oblak kept out a point-blank effort from Elanga with his head in the 13th minute, while David de Gea did brilliantly to deny Rodrigo de Paul from 25 yards at the other end. 

Fernandes had a claim for a penalty turned down following a challenge from Reinildo before Joao Felix saw a goal ruled out for offside against Marcos Llorente in the build-up. 

Atletico still went into half-time in front after Lodi headed home Antoine Griezmann's delivery, with United furious that Reinildo was not penalised for a challenge on Elanga moments earlier. 

Elanga guided a decent effort wide 30 seconds after the restart, while Jadon Sancho lashed a volley narrowly over before the hour mark. 

Oblak made another fine stop from a Raphael Varane header that looked destined for the top-left corner with 13 minutes remaining.

It was the closest Ralf Rangnick's side came to keeping their last hope of silverware this season alive, with Atletico holding on to progress.

What does it mean? United again pay for slow start 

It is not a good sign for United if they draw the first leg of a Champions League knockout clash.  They have now been eliminated from the past four ties in which they have been held in the opening encounter, three of which have come against Spanish opposition. 

Furthermore, United have now won just two of their past nine Champions League home games against Spanish opposition. 

Ronaldo goes missing 

United needed their players to step up on the big occasion, but Cristiano Ronaldo was a peripheral figure. He failed to register a single attempt on goal – something he has not experienced in a Champions League game in which he played at least 45 minutes since May 2011 (semi-final second leg against Barcelona with Real Madrid). 

Simeone masterclass 

If there is one thing Atletico know how to do it is defend a lead. Their second half was vintage Diego Simeone as his team kept their first away clean sheet against an English side in the competition. They also avoided conceding at least once in seven straight Champions League games for the first time since 2013. 

What's next? 

Atletico take on Rayo Vallecano in LaLiga on Saturday, while United are not in action until a Premier League meeting with Leicester City at Old Trafford on April 2. 

Bruno Fernandes started against Atletico Madrid on a big Champions League night for Manchester United at Old Trafford. 

The Portuguese playmaker missed Saturday's 3-2 win over Tottenham after a positive COVID-19 test. 

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a stunning hat-trick to snatch the points in that game, and United boss Ralf Rangnick confirmed the reason for Fernandes being absent afterwards. 

Rangnick said it would be a race against time for Fernandes to be back for duty in Europe; however, the former Sporting CP man was able to train on Monday. 

Fernandes was named in a midfield that also featured Fred, Jadon Sancho and Scott McTominay. The latter returned from an injury that caused him to miss the Spurs game, as Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic dropped to the bench for the visit of Diego Simeone's side. 

Ronaldo and Anthony Elanga, who scored United's goal in Spain to earn a 1-1 draw, led the attack, with Marcus Rashford only a substitute. 

Ronaldo has netted 13 goals in his last 15 home games against Atletico across all competitions, including two hat-tricks in his most recent four – for Real Madrid in May 2017 and Juventus in March 2019, both in this competition. 

Atletico's attack for Tuesday's second leg of the last-16 tie was spearheaded by Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix, with former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez on the bench. 

Tuesday sees two very finely poised games in the Champions League round of 16 as Manchester United host Atletico Madrid and Benfica travel to Amsterdam to face Ajax.

A 1-1 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano three weeks ago felt harsh on Atletico, and Diego Simeone will not have been too pleased to see Cristiano Ronaldo roar back into form at the weekend with a hat-trick in United's 3-2 win against Tottenham.

An exciting first leg in Lisbon saw Benfica and Ajax play out a 2-2 draw, with the Dutch side's star striker Sebastien Haller finding the net at both ends.

The removal of the away goals rule means there is not a single thing separating these sides heading into the second legs, so here are some Opta facts to help you decide who you think will come out on top on Tuesday.

Manchester United v Atletico Madrid

Ronaldo was back to his effervescent best on Saturday, and has scored in both of his Champions League home games for Ralf Rangnick's men this season. If he does so again, it would be only the second time he has managed three in a row for the club (previously between November 2007 and March 2008).

He has netted 13 goals in his last 15 home games against Atletico across all competitions, including two hat-tricks in his most recent four (for Real Madrid in May 2017 and Juventus in March 2019, both in this competition).

United have been eliminated from their last three Champions League knockout stage games when drawing the first leg, doing so against Real Madrid (2012-13 last 16), Bayern Munich (2013-14 quarter-final) and Sevilla (2017-18 last 16).

However, when failing to win the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie at home, Atletico have been eliminated three out of four times. The only exception was a 3-1 win at Chelsea in the 2013-14 semi-final, following a 0-0 draw in the home leg.

 

Before this season, 69 per cent of teams to draw the first leg of a Champions League knockout stage tie at home have been eliminated (59/85). That being said, six of the last 10 such teams to progress have done so against English sides.

Atletico have lost their last two away trips to face English sides in the Champions League, losing at Chelsea in 2020-21 and Liverpool this season without scoring a goal in either. In addition, they have not kept a clean sheet in any of their eight total away games against English teams in the competition, conceding 14 goals overall.

The Red Devils have only won two of their last eight Champions League home games when hosting Spanish opposition (D3 L3), although the most recent of those did come earlier in the competition this season, beating Villarreal 2-1 with a stoppage-time winner from Ronaldo.

Despite the reputation of Simeone's side for being tight at the back, they have not kept a clean sheet in any of their last six Champions League matches – only between September 2009 and October 2013 (seven games) have they had a longer such run in the competition.

Ajax v Benfica

Ajax lost their first ever home game against a Portuguese opponent in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League (3-1 in February 1969 v Benfica) but have since gone unbeaten in five matches since (W4 D1). They have won all three encounters that have taken place in the Champions League era, including one earlier this season (4-2 win v Sporting CP in the group stage).

Including qualifiers, Benfica have only won one of their last 10 away games against Dutch sides in European competition – 1-0 v AZ in the Europa League in 2013-14. Six of the other nine games have ended in draws (L3), including one earlier this season against PSV in Champions League qualifying (0-0).

Ajax have won all three of their home games in the Champions League this season. They will be looking to win four in a row on home soil in the competition for the first time since March 1996, when they won seven in succession under Louis van Gaal.

Benfica are looking to progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2015-16, when they beat Zenit. It would be just the fourth time they have reached the quarter-finals of the competition in the 21st century, after doing so in 2005-06, 2011-12 and 2015-16.

 

Goal enthusiasts Ajax have scored at least twice in all seven of their Champions League games this season, netting 22 times in total. That is the most by team from outside of the big five European leagues through their first seven games of a campaign since Ajax themselves, who scored 30 in 1979-80.

Benfica have only won one of their last 14 away games in the Champions League (D4 L9), which was against AEK Athens in October 2018. In the knockout stages of the competition, Nelson Verissimo's side have lost five of their last six away games (W1).

Ajax have four different players in double figures for chances created from open play in the Champions League this season – Dusan Tadic (16), Haller (13), Steven Berghuis (12) and Antony (10). Only Manchester City have had as many different players do so (also four).

Haller has been directly involved in five goals in three home appearances in the Champions League this season (three goals, two assists), and could become just the fourth player in the competition's history to score in each of his first four home appearances, after Oscar (2013), Frederic Kanoute (2008) and Alessandro Del Piero (1996).

Ralf Rangnick's tenure as Manchester United interim manager has not been a resounding success.

While United have climbed from seventh in the Premier League when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked to fifth, closing the gap to the top four from six points to one, fourth-placed Arsenal have three games in hand and should expect to qualify for the Champions League.

United's hopes of returning to Europe's elite club competition next year – by which time Rangnick will likely have moved upstairs – might instead rest on success in this year's tournament.

Atletico Madrid visit Old Trafford on Wednesday with their last-16 tie level at 1-1, apparently finely balanced – although the first leg was anything but. United were hugely fortunate to escape with a draw after lacking any real fluency in Spain.

Real Madrid great Cristiano Ronaldo will still no doubt be eagerly anticipating this match following his Tottenham hat-trick, but repeating those heroics represents a tall order. He will need help – and the manager's job is to provide that.

Although Rangnick has so far failed to deliver a coherent side able to produce consistent performances, that is not to say there have not been success stories of his reign.

And perhaps Jadon Sancho, who is definitely one of those, can be the man to lift United and their talisman this week.

Sancho is now finding form after a tough start to life at Old Trafford that was somewhat overshadowed by the various other issues United have faced this season, both before and since Solskjaer's sacking.

At another club, Sancho's struggles would have been front and centre, as he remarkably failed to contribute either a goal or an assist in 14 appearances for Solskjaer in all competitions.

That was certainly not what United envisaged when they paid £73million for an England winger whose 107 goal involvements (50 goals, 57 assists) for Borussia Dortmund arrived every 93 minutes on average.

There would have been relief then when Sancho was the star of Michael Carrick's short stint as caretaker, following his first United goal at Villarreal with a second at Chelsea.

Yet more than two months passed before Sancho scored again, kickstarting a vastly improved spell under Rangnick – a coach belatedly having the transformative effect on the 21-year-old many had forecast.

Rangnick's preference for a pressing game was expected to suit Sancho, whose Dortmund in the Bundesliga last season allowed the fifth-fewest opposition passes per defensive action (PPDA – 11.0) and won the fourth-most high turnovers (329).

Under Solskjaer, United ranked a passive 14th in PPDA (14.4), yet that statistic has not altered as drastically as one might have imagined; since Rangnick's appointment, United are 12th (13.3).

Others who have flourished under Rangnick have still done so by leading the press – Fred (51.8) and Anthony Elanga (51.2) rank first and second for Premier League pressures per 90 by United players since the interim boss came in – whereas the speed of United's attacking once they win possession has suited Sancho.

Opta defines a direct attack as "an open play sequence that starts just inside the team's own half and has at least 50 per cent of movement towards the opposition's goal, and ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition box".

Since the start of February, United have scored four league goals from such attacks – twice as many as any other side. Sancho has been involved in all four, striking on the break against both Southampton and Manchester City while laying on assists for Bruno Fernandes and Fred at Leeds United.

The goal at City may have counted for little on a dark day for United, but Sancho has been flying since scoring on his return to the team against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup on February 4, having been granted a period of leave following a death in his family.

"Jadon Sancho is now getting closer to the Jadon Sancho I've known from Germany," Rangnick said at the weekend. "In the end it's all about confidence. Game time, confidence. Confidence, game time. He was performing at a very high level."

He added: "This is what he should be. The club paid quite a few pounds for him in order to lure him away from Borussia Dortmund, and if you pay that amount of money in a transfer fee for a player, he should perform on this kind of level."

Rangnick was speaking after the win against Tottenham, where there was finally a goal courtesy of his combination play with Ronaldo.

It was suggested earlier in the season the pair could not work together – and the woes of both Sancho and United might agree with that argument – but the rapid run in behind and pinpoint square pass for the second of Ronaldo's three goals were evidence of how this attack can succeed.

Ronaldo can continue to thrive with that sort of service, while Sancho only looks better for having a focal point to play off in the mould of former Dortmund team-mate Erling Haaland.

Now, with 13 goals in his past 15 home games against Atletico, including two hat-tricks in the last four, do not bet against Ronaldo proving the difference again on Tuesday. Also, do not bet against Sancho being the man to supply him.

Ralf Rangnick has no concerns over Cristiano Ronaldo's powers of recovery as Manchester United prepare to face Atletico Madrid three days on from his match-winning performance against Tottenham.

Having missed the Manchester derby due to a hip flexor injury, Ronaldo's hat-trick lifted United to a crucial 3-2 win at Old Trafford as they chase a place in the Premier League top four and Champions League football for next season.

Their attention now turns to this campaign's Champions League competition and the second leg of their last-16 tie with Atletico on Tuesday.

United drew 1-1 in the first leg in Madrid, and the emphasis is likely to be placed on Ronaldo to secure their place in the quarter-finals.

Ronaldo has netted 13 goals in his last 15 home games against Atletico across all competitions.

That figure includes a pair of hat-tricks in his four most recent such meetings with the Rojiblancos, both of which came in the Champions League.

He scored a hat-trick against Atletico in the 2017 semi-finals for Real Madrid and repeated the feat for Juventus in the round of 16 in 2019 as the Bianconeri completed a remarkable second-leg turnaround.

Rangnick is unsure whether Ronaldo has another treble in his locker this time around, but is confident the 37-year-old will be ready to try to fire the Red Devils into the last eight.

He told a media conference on Monday: "I'm not worried that he has not been able to recover so far. He's always been a person who looks quite a lot after himself, his body, he exactly knows what to do so I'm not worried about that.

"If he can score another three goals we will see. It's not so easy to score three goals against this team at all. His overall performance was just good [against Tottenham], if not even very good, and this is obviously what we hope to get from him again tomorrow night.

"It's not only about Cristiano, it's about the whole team. We saw in the first half in Madrid what we shouldn't do, how we should not play, this was obviously a big topic for us yesterday and today when we spoke pre-match about tomorrow's game.

"We have to know what it takes and what it tactically takes and the rest is all about energy. We were the team on Saturday against Spurs who just wanted to win that game and that was obvious.

"Our supporters played a vital role; they realised how much we wanted to win that game and tomorrow it will be similar."

Bruno Fernandes was said to be in a race to be available to face Atletico after contracting COVID-19. However, Rangnick confirmed he trained on Monday after testing negative.

Left-back Luke Shaw is a "small question-mark" for the game but trained on Sunday and Monday.

Bruno Fernandes has tested positive for COVID-19 and could miss Manchester United's crucial Champions League home clash with Atletico Madrid.

The playmaker missed Saturday's 3-2 win over Tottenham at Old Trafford, with his absence put down to an undisclosed illness.

Details have now emerged from interim manager Ralf Rangnick, who said Fernandes faced a race against time to be ready for the last-16 second leg on Tuesday.

Luke Shaw could be back from a coronavirus lay-off, while Rangnick is hopeful midfielder Scott McTominay will be able to feature after a calf problem.

Speaking of Fernandes, Rangnick said: "I don't know. With Scotty, I hope so, but he had some muscular problems with his calf. That's why we decided not to play him [against Tottenham], because Scotty, quite like Fred, is only valuable if he can perform with 100 per cent of his physical capacity.

"Luke hopefully will be back in training Monday and Bruno we will have to wait and see until Tuesday. This will probably be a last-minute race with him – due to COVID."

Fernandes has been United's chief creative force in the Champions League this season, with his six assists putting him four ahead of Shaw, who is second on that list at the club. He has also created a team-high 20 chances in the competition, with Cristiano Ronaldo next with nine.

Ronaldo's hat-trick against Tottenham has raised hopes that he can make a telling difference in Europe, too, with United level at 1-1 with Atletico after the first leg in Spain.

Rangnick said of his 37-year-old superstar striker: "He can be a leader with a performance like that. This is what I have been telling him since I arrived, that with this kind of performance he can be one of the engines of the team.

"We have quite a few other players who can do the same, including Fred, Harry [Maguire], Rapha [Raphael Varane], Victor [Lindelof], whoever. Even Edi [Edinson Cavani], when he came on, the last 10 or 15 minutes showed how important and what kind of role he can still play. I wish him to be available until the end of the season."

Rangnick was pleased with Jadon Sancho against Tottenham, with a notable assist for Ronaldo's second goal reflecting the winger's growing influence.

Sancho arrived with a big reputation from Borussia Dortmund last year and the 21-year-old did not immediately make the expected impact, but he is beginning to catch the eye.

"This is what he should be," said Rangnick, quoted on United's official website. "The club paid quite a few pounds for him in order to lure him away from Borussia Dortmund and if you pay that amount of money in a transfer fee for a player, he should perform on this kind of level.

"At the end, they are all human beings. The mere fact he cost a lot of money does not mean that he is playing at that level to start with.

"He told me that of course it was a problem for him to get adjusted to the intensity of the league, to the physicality of the league. Now he has managed to do that. I'm happy to see him play at that kind of level right now."

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