Bernardo Silva acknowledged the pressure on Portugal to qualify for the World Cup but assured his side can cope with the challenge of making Qatar.

Portugal overcame Turkey 3-1 in the play-off semi-final on Thursday, when Roberto Mancini's Italy crashed out to North Macedonia as Aleksandar Trajkovski scored a 92nd-minute winner in Palermo.

Fernando Santos' side boast home advantage in the final at Porto's Dragao Stadium as the Euro 2016 winners aim to qualify for a sixth straight World Cup, having previously failed to appear at three consecutive tournaments between 1990 and 1998.

Manchester City star Silva insisted that Portugal players will call upon their club experiences to deal with the expectations on them against North Macedonia on Tuesday.

"The responsibility of being present at the World Cup means that, regardless of the opponent, we have this pressure," Silva told reporters at Sunday's pre-match news conference.

"The pressure exists in that sense, and we accept it, and it would be the same against Italy, [North] Macedonia or anyone else. We are used to pressure at our clubs.

"Of course, having players with experience in decisive games helps. But the fact that North Macedonia haven't played as many games like these also makes their motivation levels higher."

North Macedonia are eyeing a first World Cup in their 27-year history, having qualified for Euro 2020 last year, and Silva knows Blagoja Milevski's team will by no means be pushovers.

"North Macedonia have won four of their last five away games, two of them against two of the best teams in the world [Germany, a 2-1 win in March 2021, and Italy]," he added.

"Let's do our homework, see what the coach's plan is and try to follow it in the best way, knowing that teams are different and will demand different things.

"We are a team that creates many chances. We also know that we need to control the counter-attacks, and the best way to do that is by moving the ball well.

"We know that we have a difficult task ahead of us, but we will do our best to overcome an opponent that we know will create some difficulties. It's 90 minutes, anything can happen, and we're sure it will be very difficult.

"We need to go to the game with the same idea and all rowing in the same direction. I'm sure things will go well."

Fellow midfielder Joao Moutinho echoed Silva's sentiments, though he admitted Portugal expected to contend with Italy for a place at the 2022 edition of FIFA's showpiece event.

"I won't lie to you: we were all expecting it was going to be Italy," Moutinho told reporters.

"Football is different nowadays, every team can win at this level; it doesn't matter the names, numbers or stats. North Macedonia have an extraordinary core and will do their best to make our life miserable on Tuesday."

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." 

Burak Yilmaz's late penalty miss proved costly as Turkey fell to a 3-1 loss to Portugal in their 2022 World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final on Thursday.  

Otavio scored his second international goal in just his third cap to put Portugal in front, with Diogo Jota doubling their advantage before half-time.  

Yilmaz pulled one back for Turkey after the hour mark and had a chance to take the game to extra time by making it 2-2 after referee Daniel Siebert awarded the visitors a penalty for Jose Fonte clipping Enes Unal.  

However, Yilmaz's spot-kick clipped the crossbar on its way over and Matheus Nunes rubbed salt into the wound in stoppage time, ensuring it was Portugal who advanced to the final against North Macedonia, who earned a shock 1-0 triumph over European champions Italy.

Portugal started brightly and took the lead when Otavio scored on the follow-up after Bernardo Silva's shot was tipped onto the post by Ugurcan Cakir. 

Turkey responded positively to going behind but Portugal doubled their advantage before half-time when Jota guided Otavio's exquisite delivery into the bottom-right corner with a pinpoint header.  

Yilmaz pulled one back for Turkey when he stabbed a cool finish past Diogo Costa in the 66th minute after an excellent one-two with Cengiz Under.  

The game looked destined to be heading for extra time when the referee pointed to the spot after a trip to the pitchside monitor with five minutes remaining, but Yilmaz was unable to convert. 

It proved to be Turkey's undoing as substitute Matheus put the result beyond doubt when he finished off a pass from Rafael Leao in the 94th minute to send Portugal through.

Fernando Santos is confident Portugal can handle the pressure of competing in the World Cup qualifying play-offs.

The Selecao face Turkey in the 'Path C' semi-finals in Porto on Thursday, with the winner of that tie set to take on Italy or North Macedonia next Tuesday.

Portugal have been made to do things the hard way after losing 2-1 to Serbia in November, meaning they missed out on automatic qualification at their opponents' expense.

However, Santos insists the winner-takes-all nature of this week's play-offs can help get the best out of his players, having prevailed in two previous finals during his stewardship.

"What has happened has always been a positive sign," he said at Wednesday's pre-match news conference. "In the two previous finals we've played, we won both.

"In these decisive games we have given a positive response, except in the last game [against Serbia]. The players are experienced and will not be put off.

"We fought hard in those previous finals to make 11 million people happy. Tomorrow, in this next 'final', we want to do so again."

Portugal won Euro 2016 and the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League, beating France and the Netherlands in those respective finals.

The European heavyweights have a big task on their hands if they are to reach Qatar 2022, though, with Turkey and then potentially Italy awaiting over the next six days.

A failure to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1998 could cost Santos his job, but the 67-year-old is not thinking about his future ahead of crucial games.

"That's not the question," said Santos, who has been in charge of the national team since 2014.

"I understand why I'm asked, but I'm totally focused on what we have to play for tomorrow and we know what we have to do. 

"The team is highly focused and motivated. We know that we are here because of our responsibility. We have to win to be in the World Cup.

"All our focus is on this game we have tomorrow against Turkey."

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.

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).

Cristiano Ronaldo acknowledged that he will not "be playing for many more years" but insisted he has the desire to win more.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner has tasted success in England, Spain, Italy and on the international stage with Portugal.

The 37-year-old boasts the all-time scoring records in the Champions League and men's international football.

But the Manchester United forward wants to keep adding to that illustrious list of achievements as he heads into the twilight of his career.

"It's hard to say that I don’t want to win more," Ronaldo told DAZN in an interview published on Friday.

"If I'm at a club and I'm part of a national team that gives me the opportunity to win more, then why not?

"I know that I’m not going to be playing for many more years, hopefully about four or five more years, we'll see. But I want to win more."

Ronaldo recently endured a lean run of scoring form, failing to find the net in six appearances in all competitions during January and February – his longest run without club goal since a seven-game streak in December 2008 and January 2009.

But he ended that spell with a goal against Brighton and Hove Albion on February 15, taking his tally to 15 in 29 appearances across all competitions this season, and Ronaldo suggested he will carry on playing for as long as he enjoys to.

"I follow my own path, working on a daily basis, still trying to improve in every way and looking after myself both physically and mentally," he added.

"I'm quite old for football. In the past, great players used to play until they were older, but they didn't have as many games as we do.

"I've already reached that number [1,000 games], but like I mentioned, taking care of my body, continuing to work, and having the same enthusiasm as I used to, I can still give it all.

"Most importantly, I continue to enjoy what I do."

Ronaldo's impact has not just aided United in their fight for Champions League qualification, but his influence has also rubbed off on other players, such as Jadon Sancho.

"It is great to play next to someone who people call the GOAT [greatest of all time], so it is actually kind of crazy," Sancho told BBC Sport.

"When he first came into the dressing room I was kind of stunned. I couldn't believe that I was going to be playing alongside him.

"To have him around is fantastic, he is a great player and is a great guy. He always wants to win and for the younger players he is always helping us learn new things, telling us what to do and how to do things to make things better.

"Just being aware what is going on [he can help with] because he has been in the game for so long and he has that experience of how to beat players and to know where to be at the right time, like when a ball is being delivered and things like that.

"He is just a magician. I really appreciate him for that and he is just a great guy overall."

Ronaldo and Sancho will be hoping to partner up for more United success when Ralf Rangnick's side host Watford on Saturday.

United have never lost a home league game against Watford (W11 D2) – no side have they faced more at home in their league history without suffering defeat.

Wayne Rooney has revealed the difficulty he had adapting to life as a Premier League superstar, which led to locking himself away to drink and "raging" on the football pitch.

Rooney, Manchester United and England's record goalscorer, is releasing a documentary on Amazon Prime.

And the now Derby County manager has discussed all aspects of his career, including how he struggled to deal with the pressure of playing for United.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Rooney said becoming a top player at a young age was "something I wasn't prepared for" after growing up in his council estate in Croxteth, "always getting into fights and arguments".

"It took a long time for me to get used to that and figure out how to deal with it," Rooney told the newspaper. "It was like being thrown in somewhere where you are just not comfortable. That was tough for me. 

"I had made a lot of mistakes when I was younger, some in the press and some not in the press, whether that's fighting or whatever.

"For me to deal with that, deal with stuff that was in the newspapers, deal with the manager at the time, deal with family at the time, was very difficult.

"In my early years at Manchester United, probably until we had my first son, Kai, I locked myself away really. I never went out. 

"There were times you'd get a couple of days off from football and I would actually lock myself away and just drink, to try to take all that away from my mind."

On the pitch, it meant playing with anger – although Rooney suggests that made him a better player.

"Early on in my career, I played with a lot more anger and picked up the odd red card," he said. "The anger was all the time when I was drinking, when I was having these moments. Still constantly in my head, I was raging. 

"When I learned to control it, it took that away from me. It was almost as if being right in my head took a bit away from my game. Not being right in my head gave me that added unpredictability."

Yet one notable example of a costly red card saw Rooney sent off for England in a World Cup quarter-final against Portugal, which ended in defeat on penalties.

United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo played a prominent role in appealing for Rooney's dismissal – for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho – and was famously then caught on camera winking to the Portugal bench.

While that incident prompted plenty of discussion as they returned to United, Rooney says: "After I was sent off in the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal and we lost on penalties, I got Ronaldo out into the tunnel. 

"I said: 'Listen, you're going to get a lot of stick from the press, I'm going to get a lot of stick from the press, my focus now is on Man United. There is no issue with me whatsoever, I would have done exactly the same trying to get England a win against Portugal and this is a big year for us and we have every chance of winning the league.'

"My attention, once we were out, completely flipped back to Manchester United.

"There was never any issue. I actually tried to get him booked in the first half for diving. I'm playing for England, he's playing for Portugal, do whatever you can to win."

Perhaps there is something special to February 5. Or at least there is when it comes to world-class footballers.

On this day in 1985, Cristiano Ronaldo was born on the island of Madeira. Seven years later, Neymar came into the world in Mogi das Cruzes, in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo.

Two of modern football's greats being born on the same day is quite the quirk, but while Ronaldo has gone on to cement himself as one of the best ever, it's hard to shake the feeling Neymar has never quite lived up to his extraordinary potential.

He emerged at Santos as Brazil's golden boy, a bona fide superstar in the making. By the time he left for Barcelona in 2013 at the age of 21, he was already been talked up as a shoo-in for a Ballon d'Or success.

Yet, as the forward hits 30, no Ballon d'Or has arrived. Indeed, he finished 16th in the voting for the 2021 award, and his move to Paris Saint-Germain has not seen him scale new individual heights.

Instead, he has been somewhat overshadowed by Kylian Mbappe, one of the new kids on the block, and it was his team-mate and close friend Lionel Messi who claimed a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or last year.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, turns 37 back at the club where he became a global star.

Manchester United may not be the force they were under Alex Ferguson in Ronaldo's first stint, but his shock return to Old Trafford was a sensational story, and he continues to provide match-winning moments even if the comeback hasn't quite transformed the Red Devils into title contenders.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform looks back at what Neymar has achieved so far in his career, and how that stacks up against Ronaldo's feats by the time his twenties were over.

The trophies

Ronaldo was at Real Madrid when he turned 30 in 2015, a year after collecting his third Ballon d'Or, and a year prior to receiving his fourth. He went on to claim what was at the time a record-equalling fifth in 2017.

By the time he hit 30, Ronaldo had won four league titles (three Premier League wins, one in LaLiga), five domestic cup trophies and had enjoyed two Champions League triumphs. He had two Club World Cup successes to his name, and the UEFA Super Cup.

He played a pivotal role in Ferguson's dominant United team of the 2000s, combining with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez in a thrilling attack to win three successive Premier League titles between 2007 and 2009, before his departure to Madrid in a then world-record transfer. His maiden Champions League success came in 2007-08, and he left United after losing to Barcelona in the 2009 final.

Indeed, Barca were the dominant force upon Ronaldo's arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu, and for much of the time before he turned 30.

In total, Ronaldo had won 16 major trophies by the time his twenties ended. Neymar, on the other hand, had already won six titles by the time he left Santos.

He added a further two league crowns to his name in Spain and won the Copa del Rey on three occasions, as well as the Champions League, Club World Cup and the Supercopa de Espana once each.

The Champions League has evaded Neymar so far at PSG, though he nevertheless has a trophy count of 10 and counting from his time in France, while unlike Ronaldo, he can count an Olympic gold – earned in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 – among his honours.

Neymar has won 28 titles, with 21 of those coming in Europe and one with the Selecao (Confederations Cup 2013). However, Neymar missed Brazil's triumphant 2019 Copa America campaign through injury.

The rivalries

Ronaldo was 28 when Barca signed Neymar for €86.2m. The days of the Guardiola-Jose Mourinho Clasico rivalry were over, though the clash was still littered with superstars on each side.

Prior to his 30th birthday, Ronaldo featured in 22 Clasico matches, starting 21 times. He scored 14 goals and provided one assist across 1,928 minutes of action. 

Neymar played against Ronaldo's Madrid in four of these games, scoring twice, including on his Clasico debut when he opened the scoring and teed up Alexis Sanchez's sublime winner in a 2-1 Barca victory.

Barca won two of the four Clasico games in which Neymar played while Ronaldo was in his 20s, with Madrid taking the bragging rights in the other games.

Neymar's overall Clasico record stands at three goals and as many assists from eight appearances.

The goals

Neymar has scored 195 goals in European club football since arriving at Barca in 2013. 

It is hardly a total to be scoffed at, yet it pales in comparison to the 411 Ronaldo had managed across his spells with Sporting CP, United and Madrid by his 30th birthday.

Indeed, by February 5, 2015, Ronaldo had already netted 36 goals in all competitions in 2014-15. He finished that campaign with an incredible 61 goals, the highest single-season total of his career.

That 61-goal haul came towards the tail-end of a run in which Ronaldo netted at least 50 times in six straight seasons. Neymar's best tally in a single campaign stands at 39 (2014-15), while his totals at PSG have dropped year-on-year, with his total for 2021-22 standing at three in all competitions, compared to Ronaldo's 14.

Ronaldo is also now of course the outright leading goalscorer in the history of international football, having overtaken Iran great Ali Daei.

The Portugal captain has netted 115 times for his country, with 52 of those coming in his twenties.

Interestingly, Neymar wins out by 18 goals in this regard, totalling 70 across 11 years of playing for Brazil. 

He still has some way to go to catch Ronaldo, who is of course still going strong for Portugal, though that is one target that may well be in Neymar's sights should he match Ronaldo's longevity.

That being said, Neymar's injury record would suggest that, unlike Ronaldo and Messi, his chances of going down as one of the all-time greats appear slim heading into his thirties.

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

Italy were drawn to face England and Germany in a tough 2022-23 Nations League group on Thursday.

The Azzurri beat England in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley in July and the two sides will do battle again in Group A3 of the Nations League.

They will also face Germany and Hungary home and away in matches that will take place next June and September 2022.

Holders France are in Group A1 along with Croatia, Denmark and Austria.

World champions France were crowned champions when they came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 at San Siro in October.

Spain were drawn in Group A2 and will come up against Portugal, Czech Republic and Switzerland in the third edition of the UEFA competition.

Belgium, who squandered a two-goal lead to lose against France at the semi-final stage of the Nations League two months ago, will take on Netherlands, Poland and Wales.

Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Ukraine and Armenia are in League B Group 1.

Russia, Iceland, Israel and Albania will do battle in Group B2, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland and Romania in Group B3.

Group B4 will see Serbia, Sweden, Norway and Slovenia lock horns as they strive to secure promotion.

Four of the six matchdays will be in June due to the scheduling of the World Cup in Qatar later in 2022.

The four group winners in League A will advance to the Nations League Finals in June 2023. The group winners in the other three leagues will all be promoted for the 2024-25 edition.

Cristiano Ronaldo reached yet another milestone when he scored his 800th career goal in Manchester United's clash with Arsenal on Thursday.

Ronaldo was reinstated to the United starting XI after being benched for the 1-1 draw at Chelsea, and he justified his return when he converted Marcus Rashford's cross early in the second half to put the Red Devils 2-1 ahead.

The strike takes Ronaldo to 11 goals in 16 appearances in all competitions in his second spell at United, having sensationally returned to Old Trafford in August when it initially looked as though he was heading to Manchester City.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner has scored a combined 685 club goals for Real Madrid, Juventus, Sporting CP and United, with the other 115 coming with Portugal – no one has more than him on the international stage in the history of the men's game.

 

Ronaldo was most prolific in Madrid, scoring an incredible 450 goals in 438 appearances to become the club's all-time leading scorer, also providing 132 assists.

His best club season also came with Los Blancos, netting 61 times from just 47.9 expected goals (xG) in 54 games across all competitions in 2014-15.

In that campaign, Ronaldo registered the best minutes-per-goal ratio (76.1) of any player from Europe's top five leagues to have scored at least 10 in all competitions.

The Portugal captain's favourite opponent is Sevilla, scoring 27 times in just 18 appearances against them, although he will also have fond memories of Granada and Espanyol, scoring five goals in a game against each of them in 2015.

Not only is the 36-year-old forward the highest-scoring player in international football, he also boasts the all-time record in the Champions League (140).

Ronaldo's effort against the Gunners was his first in the Premier League in over a month, last netting in the competition back on October 30 when United beat Tottenham 3-0 away from home.

Roberto Mancini admitted Italy would rather not have to do battle with Portugal for a place in the 2022 World Cup if they get past North Macedonia.

The European champions were on Friday drawn to face North Macedonia in a semi-final next March after missing out on automatic qualification for the tournament in Qatar.

Italy will come up against either Portugal or Turkey in a decisive showdown if they avoid a semi-final upset.

Euro 2016 champions Portugal were consigned to a play-off spot in dramatic fashion as Aleksandar Mitrovic's last-gasp strike saw Serbia through as Group A winners.

Italy boss Mancini is confident his side will qualify, but gave an honest reaction to the prospect of trying to deny Cristiano Ronaldo what could be his last trip to a World Cup.

He said: "We are always confident and positive. Macedonia had a good qualifying group, we will have to play a great match. Then we will see what happens in the final.

Asked about the prospect of coming up against Portugal, he said: "We would have liked to avoid them, in the same way Portugal would have gladly avoided Italy."

The draw also threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine.

Russia will host Poland, with the winners playing either Sweden or the Czech Republic. 

Italy or Portugal will miss out on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the two most recent European champions were drawn in the same play-off path.

Roberto Mancini led Italy to a Euro 2020 triumph earlier this year, yet the Azzurri failed to qualify automatically for next year's World Cup, with Switzerland progressing instead.

Portugal, Euro 2016 winners, also fell short, finishing three points behind Serbia in Group A.

And now one of the heavyweights will fail to appear in Qatar, with both teams drawn together in Path C of the play-offs, which will take place in March.

Italy were drawn in a semi-final against minnows North Macedonia, who are aiming to make their first appearance at a World Cup, while Portugal will face Turkey.

Should they progress, Portugal will have home advantage in the Path C final to determine which team progresses to Qatar. While Cristiano Ronaldo could well be fighting to play in his final World Cup, the Azzurri will be aiming to avoid missing out on the tournament for a second successive time.

Path A threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine, who went unbeaten in a qualifying group that also included reigning world champions France, respectively.

In Path B, Russia will host Poland and Sweden will play the Czech Republic. 

The winner of Russia v Poland will host the Path B final.

Play-offs draw in full

Path A

SF1 – Scotland v Ukraine

SF2 – Wales v Austria

F1 – Winner SF2 v Winner SF1

Path B

SF3 – Russia v Poland

SF4 – Sweden v Czech Republic

F2 – Winner SF3 v Winner SF4

Path C

SF5 – Italy v North Macedonia

SF6 – Portugal v Turkey

F3 – Winner SF6 v Winner SF5

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

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