Gareth Southgate believes it is an "embarrassment" England is playing next month's Nations League match at home to Italy behind closed doors.

June's Euro 2020 final rematch at the Molineux Stadium will be held without fans in attendance, after UEFA sanctioned the English Football Association for crowd trouble that marred that Wembley loss for Southgate's side.

Fans burst into the stadium without tickets and fought with stewards as England lost in that dramatic penalty shootout, and were given a two-game attendance ban by European football's governing body as a result.

Asked if the FA were given a lenient ruling upon announcing his squad for the upcoming international window, Southgate was blunt on England and English football's reputation.

"Well, we're on a yellow card aren't we, so we are where we are," Southgate said. "We've got the embarrassment now of playing behind closed doors at home.

"Normally when you watch those things having happened abroad, we're all grandstanding about how it's someone else's problem and how this country should be dealt with - and now it's us. That's not a good optic for our country.

"There's clearly a responsibility within football because, when it's in our environment, we've got to do all we can to try to make sure it doesn't happen."

England will play four Nations League fixtures in June, with away trips to Hungary and Germany, before facing Italy and playing out the return fixture with Hungary.

The games come on the back of a recent spate of crowd trouble to mark the end of the English domestic season.

Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp was struck by a fan in their Championship playoff against Nottingham Forest, while Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira was involved in a scuffle with a supporter following their loss to Everton. This weekend, Aston Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen was assaulted by a pitch-invading Manchester City supporter.

In response, Southgate has urged for English football to show restraint and avoid changes that can obstruct the matchday experience.  

"We all recognise that, but it's a wider problem," he said. "It's behaviour and a reflection on where we are as a country.

"It's a difficult time for people, we're going to have more difficult times because of the economy and the realities of the situation we're in.

"How do we want to be viewed as a country because that's manifesting itself in football at the moment and that's not a good look. We don't want to go back to fences up and the type of environment that created."

Gareth Southgate believes the rest of Europe's leading leagues face a "jump" to the Premier League, but he has suggested Fikayo Tomori's Serie A title success with Milan represents "a really good bridge".

Tomori has long since been touted as a potential England star, yet he only returned to Southgate's senior set-up on Tuesday after clinching the Scudetto with the Rossoneri.

The former Chelsea man is well established as one of the finest defenders in Italy, although the Three Lions manager suggested this alone was not enough to put him ahead of Premier League rivals.

Southgate has also watched Tammy Abraham play in Serie A this season, with the Roma forward becoming the highest-scoring English player in a single season in the league's history (17 goals – ahead of Gerry Hitchens' 16 for Inter in 1961-62).

This has given Southgate and his coaching staff a greater understanding of the level of play in Italy, but the England boss says it pales next to the "powerful" English game, even if the pressure of a title race has now played in Tomori's favour.

"Firstly, huge credit to both the boys for going and adapting to living abroad, playing a different style of football, the endeavour to learn another language and fit in culturally with the group," Southgate said after announcing his squad for June's Nations League fixtures. "That deserves huge credit.

"We're watching a lot of Serie A, we're watching a lot of the Bundesliga, we were watching a lot of LaLiga when Tripps [Kieran Trippier] was there – the leagues are different levels to the Premier League.

"Milan's defence, if you looked at the defence in the last few months of the season, was very young, with very few international caps right across the back four.

"Inter are very strong; I think, in those leagues, the top two or three teams are very strong.

"But compared to the depth of the Premier League, there isn't the financial clout and so the depth isn't the same. And the intensity of the games is very different – there is a lot more structure, a lot less transitional.

"There is a jump, I think, and I think that's been shown in a lot of the Champions League fixtures and European fixtures.

"Our league is incredibly powerful in terms of its spending power. Some of the smallest teams in our league, with the least financial resource, can compete with some historic European giants. It's a great product we've got.

"So, we're trying to map all of that when we're assessing the players and the levels of their performances – because we watch them week in, week out, really clearly, we're pretty clear on what that is, so we're realistic in our expectations.

"But, of course, Fik in particular comes with the confidence of having just won a league title, playing at Milan in front of 70,000, 80,000 people every week.

"That's a similar sort of pressure to what he's going to have in an England shirt. It's a really good bridge."

Tomori was preferred to a more experienced option like Tottenham's Eric Dier, who is "definitely in our thinking", Southgate said.

"We know him," Southgate explained of Dier's absence, but Leicester City's James Maddison, coming off the best scoring season of his Premier League career (12 goals), was snubbed because he remains behind Mason Mount and Phil Foden in the pecking order.

The England manager still will not rule out any option ahead of the Qatar World Cup, however, adding: "We have September, and I think there's always the possibility that somebody emerges. That's always happened when I've been selecting squads."

Elsewhere, Southgate confirmed he had spoken to Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta before selecting Bukayo Saka, while there were discussions with Liverpool's Champions League finalists Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson.

Alexander-Arnold is involved but will likely only to take part in "the first part of the camp", though Southgate "didn't need to see" Henderson.

England manager Gareth Southgate has called up West Ham winger Jarrod Bowen and Leicester City's James Justin for the first time, while Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori return.

The Three Lions face Germany, Italy and Hungary next month in the Nations League, with England confirming a 27-man squad on Tuesday.

Bowen, who scored 18 goals for West Ham this season to help David Moyes' side finish seventh in the Premier League and reach the Europa League semi-finals, "was in the frame" to be called up in March, according to Southgate, but did not make the cut.

Only Harry Kane scored more goals in all competitions over the 2021-22 season among Englishmen in the Premier League.

Leicester full-back Justin is a surprise choice, though his ability to fill in at left-back may have seen him get the nod, with Luke Shaw having missed the end of the season due to injury and Ben Chilwell only making his Chelsea comeback on Sunday.

Jordan Henderson does not feature despite being set to play in this weekend's Champions League final with Liverpool, though his club-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold is included. Tyrone Mings and Eric Dier miss out in defence.

"We felt like Hendo [Henderson] we didn't need to see this summer. Trent is slightly different," Southgate told a news conference on Tuesday.

Tomori, who has enjoyed a brilliant season with Serie A champions Milan, is called up in Mings' place, while another English player to thrive in Serie A this season – Roma striker Abraham – is also present. 

A first-half double against Torino on Friday saw Abraham become the highest-scoring English player in a single season in the Italian top flight, surpassing the previous mark of 16 set by Gerald Hitchens at Inter in 1961-62. 

Kyle Walker makes his return after recovering from injury, while Kieran Trippier is also recalled. Reece James figures as well in a defence stacked with right-backs.

Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi is included, though Southgate confirmed the centre-back has a knock, while Harry Maguire is the only Manchester United player to feature in the squad, with Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho unsurprisingly absent again.

Similarly, there is no place for Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe, while James Maddison has been overlooked despite a strong season with Leicester.

England begin their Nations League campaign against Hungary on June 4, before taking on Germany in Munich three days later.

Italy face the Three Lions at Molineux on June 11 in a repeat of the Euro 2020 final, while Hungary also visit Wolverhampton on June 14.

 

England squad in full: Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal); Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Conor Coady (Wolves), Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace), Reece James (Chelsea), James Justin (Leicester City) Harry Maguire (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Fikayo Tomori (Milan), Kieran Trippier (Newcastle United), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ben White (Arsenal); Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace, on loan from Chelsea), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Kalvin Phillips (Leeds United), Declan Rice (West Ham), James Ward-Prowse (Southampton); Tammy Abraham (Roma), Jarrod Bowen (West Ham), Phil Foden (Manchester City), Jack Grealish (Manchester City), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City).

Brazil great Cafu feels he and "one of the best right-backs in the world" Trent-Alexander Arnold share many similarities, while he heaped praise on England's transformation under Gareth Southgate. 

Alexander-Arnold remains in contention for an unprecedented quadruple with Liverpool, who have already won the EFL Cup and FA Cup and face Real Madrid in the Champions League final next Saturday. 

Jurgen Klopp's side also head into the final day of the Premier League season just a point behind leaders Manchester City, requiring a win against Wolves and hoping Pep Guardiola's side falter against Aston Villa. 

Alexander-Arnold has again been one of Liverpool's stars this campaign, with his 120 chances created far ahead of any other defender in Europe's top five leagues – David Raum in second has 88. 

The England international also leads the way for assists in the same group this term, with his 18 putting him three clear of Liverpool team-mate Andy Robertson. 

Former right-back Cafu, who played most of his career in Serie A with Roma and Milan, was quick to hail the progress Alexander-Arnold has made. 

"I have been following Alexander-Arnold and the campaign he has had at Liverpool," he told BBC Sport. "His progress over the last few years has been amazing and for sure is one of the best right-backs in the world. 

"He is young, strong and has developed hugely considering his age. He also has a lot of experience and I see a lot of similarities between him and myself. 

"We both had a will and commitment to attack, to go forward and have the boldness to shoot and to put the crosses in. The diagonal movements he makes on the pitch are also similar to what I was making as a player." 

Alexander-Arnold will hope to carry his club form into international duty in the Nations League with England before aiming for World Cup glory in Qatar in November and December. 

Southgate's side made their first major final since 1966 by reaching the Euro 2020 showpiece and Cafu credited the changes the England boss has overseen. 

"I have been following England and the evolution of their national team has been very good under Gareth Southgate," he added. "Along with Portugal, I consider England as the team to have evolved most on the pitch in the last few years. 

"They have a very strong squad with individual players who are performing at a very high level for their clubs. This helps the national team and the progress they have shown with their players means they have a good chance to go far in the [World Cup]. 

"If the England players listen to their coach as a group, then they have a better chance of winning." 

Neville Southall insists Jordan Pickford is not to blame for Everton's woes and believes he is rightfully England's first-choice goalkeeper.

Pickford captained Everton as Frank Lampard's team capitulated to another dismal away defeat on Wednesday, this time to relegation rivals Burnley.

Two penalties from Richarlison had put Everton 2-1 up at Turf Moor heading into half-time yet Jay Rodriguez and Maxwel Cornet struck to seal a 3-2 victory for Burnley that takes the Clarets to within a point of Lampard's side, who sit 17th with nine games remaining.

Pickford was hardly at fault for any of Burnley's goals and has been a consistent performer for Everton despite their torrid form.

The 28-year-old's place as England number one has been called into question this term, due in large part to Aaron Ramsdale's strong form for Arsenal, though Gareth Southgate has stood by Pickford, who has played a pivotal role in the Three Lions reaching a World Cup semi-final and the final of Euro 2020.

Asked about Pickford by Sky Sports, Everton great Southall, who was their goalkeeper throughout the club's successful spell in the 1980s, said: "Confidence plays a part in it. Jordan Pickford's done nothing wrong this season.

"Unfortunately at the moment, we've got Aaron Ramsdale at Arsenal and traditionally most of the media want somebody to play [for England] from a London club.

"So he's always going to be under more scrutiny because he's playing for a club up north. I truly believe there's been a witch hunt against him through the media at times and I think it's just silly.

"He's a decent goalkeeper, playing for England. Is he going to make mistakes? Of course he is, because he's human."

Southall also believes fans and pundits have to be more aware of the potential damage that being highly critical of players can do to their mental wellbeing.

"We've got to think about what we say to these players," he continued. "Telling them all the time that they can't do stuff. 

"We should start saying that they can do it. They don't know what damage they're doing. You're entitled to an opinion but some of the language I think has been over the top and it can affect some of the players. For me it's about looking after the players' welfare."

Everton's situation makes for grim reading. Lampard has lost all five of his Premier League away games in charge of the club – he is the first manager to lose his first five away matches at a Premier League side since Jan Siewert at Huddersfield Town in 2019, who lost his first seven.

Southall, though, has put the onus on the players to step up after mistakes from Ben Godfrey and Jonjoe Kenny proved costly at Turf Moor.

"I wouldn't say any, to be fair," Southall said when asked how much responsibility fell on Lampard's shoulders.

"Whoever he puts out it's up to them to do the job. It's all about the players on the pitch. The players have to emulate the fans, passion, expression, desire and if they show them things I think we'll get results."

Everton face Manchester United at Goodison Park on Saturday.

England could be considered as "the biggest favourite" for the 2022 World Cup, according to former Three Lions manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Gareth Southgate's team reached the semi-finals at Russia 2018, matching England's best effort at a World Cup since they triumphed on home soil in 1966.

England then made their first major tournament final appearance since 1966 when they faced Italy in a Euro 2020 showdown last year, only to lose on penalties.

Eriksson managed England at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, reaching the quarter-finals of each tournament respectively, while also getting to the last eight at Euro 2004.

Beaten by Brazil in 2002, and Portugal at the following two tournaments, Eriksson was unable to guide England's 'golden generation' to success.

But the Swede believes Southgate's team have earned the right to be considered among the favourites – and, indeed, the frontrunner overall – to succeed in Qatar later this year.

Eriksson told Stats Perform: "I think they are one of the big teams who can win, and maybe they are the biggest favourite.

 

"I'm not sure how strong Brazil and Argentina are in this moment, but in Europe, Italy [are] not there. Spain, I don't think they are good enough to win it too. Germany, you never know they could do it. Belgium, always a good team."

Eriksson also believes England should easily progress from Group B, in which they have been drawn alongside Iran, the United States and one of Ukraine, Scotland or Wales.

"The group with England, Iran, United States and then it's Ukraine Scotland or Wales. I mean, it's always difficult in the World Cup, but I can't see them not winning that group," Eriksson added.

"That's impossible. They will win it easily. And then it depends always, who are you going to meet next stage, and then if you win there you go to the quarter-final.

"So, a little bit of luck there and no injuries, important players and so on and England can do it."

England boss Gareth Southgate has expressed his support for proposed changes to 2022 World Cup squads.

FIFA is expected to announce an increase in squad sizes for the tournament in Qatar, with 26-man squads instead of 23 – akin to those permitted at Euro 2020 – expected to be allowed.

Coaches of the qualified nations are also pushing for 15-man benches at the competition after Euro 2020 regulations forced Southgate and other bosses to leave three players out of their matchday squads.

England will begin their 16th World Cup campaign with a first-ever competitive meeting with Iran on November 21, before rounding off their group-stage campaign with games against the United States and one of Wales, Scotland, or Ukraine.

Southgate has now claimed that coaches were "unanimous" in their desire to allow every player in a squad to be in matchday contention in Qatar at a recent meeting, making his strong support for the proposal clear.

"I think what everyone is saying is that if the squads are going to be bigger, then it needs to be a situation where everybody is able to change on a matchday," Southgate said. 

"That was unanimous in the room [at the coaches' meeting]. Whether a bigger squad is necessary... originally that was for COVID-19, there's now people talking about the [impact of] condensed fixtures. 

"I still think it's a bigger skill to pick 23 and to work all that out, but that decision will be made and I suspect it will be 26. 

"But I think everybody has to be available for all the games."

Southgate also highlighted some difficulties of managing a squad at an international tournament, noting the "challenge" of keeping players involved as a reason why some coaches may not elect to take extra players.

"You either get the difficult conversations in the middle of November or in the next few weeks," Southgate added. "That's how it was last summer.

"When you are picking a team, when you've got 11 who are happy and 15 who are disappointed, that's more of a challenge. That's managing. 

"That's why you don't have to take 26, I know Luis Enrique didn't last year [Spain took 24 players to Euro 2020]. That's something we'll have to think about, depending on what the Covid situation is and what our injuries might be."

England are the only European team to have reached the semi-finals of the last two major international tournaments (the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020), and sealed their place in Qatar via a dominant qualification campaign in which they scored 39 goals and conceded just three.

Gregg Berhalter is relishing the opportunity to face Gareth Southgate's England at the World Cup, with the United States coach seeing his England counterpart as a "mentor".

The USA were drawn alongside England, Iran and one of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine in Group B in Friday's draw for the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in Qatar later this year.

Having failed to make the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the USA were not sure of qualification heading into Wednesday's meeting with Costa Rica, which they lost 2-0.

However, a 5-0 win over Panama in their previous qualifier had all but ensured that they, along with Mexico and Canada, progressed automatically as the CONCACAF representatives, courtesy of their superior goal difference compared to Costa Rica.

Speaking to BBC Sport following the draw, Berhalter explained how he and Southgate "go way back", saying they had contact following the former's appointment as USA coach in 2018.

"We think it's a good group, we know every opponent in the World Cup is difficult but with England you get an exciting match-up," Berhalter said.

"We go way back. He's a guy I look up to and has always been there for me, given me advice.

"When I first took the job as national team coach, I looked at him as something as a mentor.

"He's someone who I have a lot of respect for what he's doing, and I'm looking forward to competing against England."

Asked in what capacity he and Southgate knew each other, Berhalter replied: "I just reached out to him when I got the job and asked if he'd be interested in telling me more about international football.

"Being the guy that Gareth is, he was more than happy to have those conversations and since then we have stayed in touch."

England drew 1-1 with the USA in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup, when a Robert Green howler cost Fabio Capello's Three Lions an opening-game win in South Africa.

Gareth Southgate said England's foremost focus will be getting out of their World Cup group after two of their three opponents were confirmed in Friday's draw.

England, who have reached one major semi-final and one final under Southgate, will open their campaign with a first-ever meeting against Iran on the tournament's opening day on November 21.

They will then face the United States in a repeat of their opening game at the 2010 World Cup, while their final group match could see them face a home nations rival in Wales or Scotland, who will compete with Ukraine for Europe's final qualification place in a play-off that has been delayed due to Ukraine's ongoing conflict with Russia.

On paper, Group B looks set to present a smooth passage to the knockout stages for England but Southgate, who led the Three Lions to a first World Cup semi-final since 1990 four years ago, is not looking any further ahead than the group stages.

"The first two teams we've not played for quite a while," Southgate told BBC Sport. "The third is a total unknown but throws up a possible British derby. We know what they're all about, we've had plenty of them!

"For us, we're in on day one so it's quite clear now what our program looks like, with the end of the Premier League season and getting out here as quickly as possible."

Asked if that knowledge gave England more time to prepare for possible knockout games, Southgate responded: "It does, but we've got to get out of the group.

"What we've done well is approach these tournaments by looking at the group. 

"The first objective is to get out of the group, regardless of the opposition, and then you build from there.

"When you're seeded, you get the advantage of missing out on those big six or seven teams. For most of the first seeds, they'll be pleased with the group they get.

"There's obviously some really high ranked teams in Pot Two, and the US in particular, I know Gregg Berhalter quite well, we've met a couple of times and had long chats about things. 

"They've got some very good players and we know what they could be capable of as a nation. That one, in particular, is an intriguing one."

Furthermore, being drawn into a World Cup group with the United States for a third occasion represents the first time that England have been in the same group as one particular nation at three separate editions of the tournament.

England captain Harry Kane, meanwhile, was glad to see that the Three Lions will open their campaign on the first day of the tournament.

"Always exciting to see who we get in the group!" Kane tweeted. "Playing on the opening day will be incredible as well."

The decision to host the World Cup in Qatar has faced strong opposition from many quarters.

Southgate, who made his opposition to any boycott of the tournament clear during the recent international break, expressed his desire for the World Cup to drive substantive change in the Gulf state.

"We'll continue to speak to people here," he added. "We've got to build relationships here to be able to highlight any change that we'd like to make. 

"It's important to do that in the right way. Today my focus is just on the draw and working out what that all means really."

Gareth Southgate insists England are among a select band of teams that can win the World Cup – but to land glory in Qatar they must be "close to perfect".

As he waited to learn his team's fate in Friday's draw, Southgate was taking confidence from the upturn in England's performance on big stages in recent years.

A semi-final run at the 2018 World Cup in Russia was followed by another appearance in the last-four stage of the Nations League, before England went close to landing a long-awaited trophy in the delayed Euro 2020 tournament.

Reaching the final of the European Championship means England should head to Qatar in November with plenty of belief as they attempt to land a second World Cup, some 56 years after Geoff Hurst's hat-trick against West Germany in the 1966 final.

"The World Cup is very special. It's the pinnacle. It's still the ultimate prize," said Southgate.

"What have we said to the team this week? That if we can get to a semi-final, we can get to a final – which we did. And if we can get to a final, we can win.

"To do that is incredibly difficult, and we'll have to be as close to perfect as can be. That's the challenge for us, not just when we get to Qatar, because we've got to be in the right condition, even before that. That's what we've got to work towards every day we're together."

Southgate, whose side have beaten Switzerland and Ivory Coast in the past week, added: "We know we've had consistent performances over a three, four-year period, and we are one of the teams – I think there are a few – that could win this tournament."

In charge since September 2016, Southgate has surpassed most initial expectations of his reign already, bringing through an exciting generation of young players who were only denied Euro 2020 glory by Italy in a penalty shoot-out.

England have qualified for the World Cup for the 16th time, and Qatar 2022 will mark their seventh appearance in a row, their longest streak in the competition.

The Three Lions have progressed past the quarter-finals only twice since their Wembley triumph in 1966, but they have not been to another final.

This time there are signs that England might be ready to take that step. They had the best goal difference in the group stage among European qualifiers, scoring 39 goals and conceding only three, and Southgate expects other national teams will be wary of his side.

He said, quoted widely in British media on Friday: "We've definitely got respectability and I think we will be a team other teams wouldn't look forward to playing. But that's a double-edged sword though because some teams are going to prepare differently for you.

"You're there to be shot at, and they are going to have a specific way of playing to try and stop you, but some will be a little bit fearful of you and might allow you more of the game, so from our point of view, what really matters is how it makes us feel about ourselves."

Qatar 2022 is fast approaching and the anticipation will surely be at its most intense so far when Friday's draw for the group stage is completed.

The Doha Exhibition and Convention Center plays host to the milestone event, which will see eight groups drawn from pots as the eventual storylines of the World Cup begin to unfurl.

Among the narratives that will start being mapped out on Friday is France's title defence, with Les Bleus hoping to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

Ahead of the draw, Stats Perform provides a lowdown of all the key information…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, the draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section ahead of Mexico and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

It's nearly four years since Didier Deschamps became only the third man to win the World Cup as a player and coach, as he guided France to their second success on football's grandest stage.

The target now for Les Bleus is to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to retain their crown, and that journey begins on Friday with the draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022.

Four years is a long time to wait for anything, but the draw for the World Cup is always a milestone event that sees the anticipation taken up a notch.

The eyes of the football world will be on the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, where the eight groups will be drawn and potential routes to December's finale can start being plotted.

But there is a little more to the draw than that…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, Friday's draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

England manager Gareth Southgate has come under criticism from Nasser Al Khater for questioning Qatar's human rights record.

Southgate confirmed earlier this month that his side intend to use the World Cup in Qatar to highlight concerns around the host country.

However, he also stressed that they must be "realistic" as any demonstration will be "complicated".

Qatar's stance towards women and the LGBTQ+ community was widely pointed to as a problem before FIFA awarded it the tournament in 2010. 

Meanwhile, the deaths of thousands of migrant workers have been reported during preparation for the finals, although Qatar's organising committee disputed what it called "inaccurate claims" around the number of fatalities.

Al Khater – the chief executive of Qatar 2022 – has rebutted Southgate's concerns, though, believing the England boss is unaware of the actual situation in the Gulf State.

"My question would be, who from the England squad has come to Qatar? My question to the coach is, has he been to Qatar? Is he basing his opinions and his public statements on what he has read? Because it is kind of an issue if you're basing your opinions and you are very vocal about that based on things you have read," Al Khater told Sky Sports.

"Somebody with a lot of influence, such as Southgate, somebody with a big audience that listens to what he says, ought to pick his words very carefully.

"And I think that before making statements like that, when it comes to the workers, he needs to come here and speak to workers and understand what workers get out of being here.

"There are isolated cases, those are the cases that make it to the media, however, I can assure him that if he comes here and speaks to the majority of the workers, they will tell you how they put their children through university, they will tell you how they've built their houses for them and their families.

"These are the stories that nobody hears, so I look forward to welcoming him here, I look forward to meeting him at the draw and he can listen to my opinion, he does not have to believe it, but at least he needs to go that far to understand different opinions and different cultures.

"No country is perfect, let's get that right and I do not think anybody can claim that, so if somebody is coming and claiming they are a perfect country, they need to really take a look at themselves."

Al Khater, who was pictured with Southgate at an event in December 2019, also suggested fans should not be concerned about travelling to Qatar.

"People are basing their opinions and fears on things they do not understand and that is usually what causes apprehension with human beings, a lack of understanding," he added.

"People are going to feel safe here, people are going to be very comfortable, what I can say to fans is, we are a modest country, we have our culture, we have our norms, what we ask of them is to respect it. What that means is, whether you are a gay couple, whether you are a heterosexual couple, we have the same norms, we look at it the same way.

"All we ask is for people to be respectful, like we are respectful when we travel around the world, and just to observe these cultural differences. Basically what it means is public displays of affection are frowned upon, that is simply it."

Roy Keane has taken aim at England manager Gareth Southgate, accusing him of "picking and choosing" when to support his players after Harry Maguire was booed by his own fans at Wembley on Tuesday.

Southgate came out in staunch defence of the centre-back, labelling the reaction from home supporters during the Three Lions' 3-0 friendly win against Ivory Coast as "an absolute joke".

However, Keane believes the former Middlesbrough boss made it "a bigger story than it is", and questioned why he had not offered the same support to other players in the past.

Speaking during ITV's post-match coverage of the game, the former Manchester United captain said: "Every player gets booed. There is going to be idiots at football matches – England have a lot of idiots.

"Gareth could have easily said tonight 'it is no big deal'. He actually played well tonight, just focus on that.

"He is almost picking and choosing when to support his players. [Raheem] Sterling had a bust-up two or three years ago and was bombed out of the squad. He's left other players out.

"I remember when [Maguire] was sent off last year against Denmark and [Southgate] didn't really support him when he was walking off the pitch.

"I think he has made it a bigger story than it is. Just get on with the game.

"He played well and he will get fans back on side with his performances, not by people reacting to a few boos or social media. Be big enough and man enough to get on with the game."

Maguire posted a message on Twitter on Wednesday morning simply saying "Enjoyable week playing for my country."

The United defender has had public support from a number of England team-mates since the game, with Jack Grealish, Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane among those who have criticised the fan reaction.

Harry Kane has launched a staunch defence of under-fire England team-mate Harry Maguire after the defender was jeered by fans, describing the reception as "just not right".

Manchester United captain Maguire started Tuesday's 3-0 win over Ivory Coast at Wembley, where goals from Ollie Watkins, Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings sealed victory for the hosts.

Despite having been a key figure under Gareth Southgate, even earning a spot in the UEFA Team of the Tournament for his performances at Euro 2020, Maguire has become a target for the boo boys in club and international colours.

Southgate labelled the reaction "an absolute joke", and Kane took to Twitter on Wednesday to echo those sentiments, adding that Maguire had the full backing of his international team-mates.

"We’ve worked hard to rebuild our connection with England fans in the last few years so to hear Harry Maguire booed at Wembley before kick-off was just not right," the Tottenham striker tweeted.

"The fact that he's been brilliant on the pitch and given us all so many great memories makes it even harder to understand. He doesn't deserve that reception.

"He's got full support in the changing room and should have the same from every England fan."

 

Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson also offered his support to Maguire via social media.

"I can't get my head around what happened at Wembley tonight," he wrote on Twitter.

"Harry Maguire has been a colossus for England. Without him, the progress made at the last two tournaments would not have been possible.​

"To be booed at his home stadium, for no reason? What have we become? What happened tonight was just wrong. As someone who wants to win with England, I feel fortunate to share a dressing room with him.

"We all feel the same!"

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