Cristiano Ronaldo conceded that Sunday's 2-1 defeat to Serbia was "tough" but vowed that Portugal's hopes of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup are "still very much alive."

Despite an early goal from Renato Sanches in Lisbon, an equaliser from Dusan Tadic and a 90th-minute Aleksandar Mitrovic header saw Serbia leapfrog Portugal to win Group A in World Cup qualifying.

Fernando Santos' men must now go through the play-offs in March if they are to qualify for the showpiece tournament, though captain Ronaldo reassured he still believes his side will qualify for Qatar.

"Football has shown us time and time again that, at times, it is the most winding paths that lead to the most desired outcomes," the 36-year-old posted on Instagram.

"Yesterday's result was tough, but not enough to get us down. The objective of being present at the 2022 World Cup is still very much alive and we know what we have to do to get there. No excuses. Portugal [are] heading to Qatar."

Ronaldo scored six goals in seven games for his country in qualifying, which included a goal against the Republic of Ireland that saw him become the all-time record goalscorer in international football, overtaking Iran's Ali Daei (109).

Portugal head coach Santos played down a gesture made by Ronaldo after the late defeat, insisting that his captain was referencing March's reverse fixture in Belgrade, in which the Manchester United forward was not awarded a stoppage-time goal despite the ball appearing to cross the line in the 2-2 draw.

"Nobody was explaining anything," Santos told reporters when asked about Ronaldo. "He was telling the other guy that there [in Serbia] he had scored a goal at the last minute and that the referee didn't count.

"That's what he was saying at the time. It wasn't a matter for us to be there now. On the field, he said that we scored a goal there and the referee didn't, but it's his outburst. It's perfectly normal."

Fernando Santos played down Cristiano Ronaldo's gesture after Portugal missed out on automatic World Cup qualification, though the under-fire head coach guaranteed his team will be in Qatar next year.

Portugal will feature in the World Cup play-offs following Sunday's dramatic 2-1 defeat at home to Serbia in Lisbon.

Requiring only a draw to book their trip to Qatar in Group A, Portugal were on track after Renato Sanches and Dusan Tadic traded goals in the opening half.

However, Aleksandar Mitrovic came off the bench and scored in the 90th minute to send Serbia to the showpiece tournament.

Portugal superstar and captain Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure afterwards, gesturing as coach Santos approached him on the pitch post-game.

But Santos insisted Ronaldo was referencing March's reverse fixture in Belgrade, where the five-time Ballon d'Or winner was not awarded a stoppage-time goal, despite the ball appearing to cross the line in the 2-2 draw.

"Nobody was explaining anything," Santos told reporters when asked about Ronaldo. "He was telling the other guy that there [in Serbia] he had scored a goal at the last minute and that the referee didn't count.

"That's what he was saying at the time. It wasn't a matter for us to be there now. On the field, he said that we scored a goal there and the referee didn't, but it's his outburst. It's perfectly normal.

"Now no one goes after a game to explain what happened or didn't happen. I went to raise the players' heads."

Ronaldo's Portugal will take part in the play-offs as one of the second-placed seeded teams.

The play-offs will not be contested in two-legged ties, with the semi-finals and final set to take place in March next year.

"The truth is that we did not have a good performance overall," Santos said. "Therefore, we have to say sorry. The Portuguese people are obviously sad. Not more than us, but just like us.

"But my team will be at the Qatar World Cup. That is guaranteed. We just have to compete in the play-offs which is not common for us. Portugal never went through a play-off with me, but they played it on three occasions and qualified for the finals in all of them.

"We will do it again. And I personally took part in a play-off, too. And I also qualified for the World Cup."

Serbia head coach Dragan Stojkovic insisted there is no limit to what the country can achieve after they qualified for the 2022 World Cup in dramatic fashion.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scored in the 90th minute to break Portugal's hearts as Serbia reached next year's showpiece tournament in Qatar thanks to a last-gasp 2-1 victory in Group A on Sunday.

Portugal only required a draw to earn automatic qualification and Cristiano Ronaldo's men were on track after Renato Sanches and Dusan Tadic traded first-half goals in Lisbon.

However, Serbia dominated and were rewarded when substitute Mitrovic headed home late as Portugal were relegated to the play-offs.

"We have no limit, we will analyse everything after this, and we did everything we did perfectly," Stojkovic said post-game.

"We showed in the end that we are better. We have the potential for much bigger things."

Serbia failed to qualify for Euro 2020 following a disappointing play-off defeat to Scotland.

Mitrovic – Serbia's all-time leading scorer – said: "I don't know what to say. I would cry and laugh at the same time. 

"Great victory, we came to Portugal to play football, to win. We were better, outplayed the opponent and deservedly celebrated."

Serbia captain Tadic, who equalised in the 33rd minute to cancel out Sanches' early opener, praised the impact of Stojkovic.

Stojkovic was appointed in March, replacing under-fire boss Mladen Krstajic.

"There are a lot of emotions at the moment and everyone is very happy and satisfied," Tadic added. "Since [Stojkovic] came, I think that a smile has returned and that we are playing beautiful football, which we showed today. 

"We showed that we can come to Portugal to dominate and win. I think that everyone who wears this coat of arms and who is a citizen of this country should be very happy and proud."

"Serbia should go to the World and European Championships continuously," Tadic said. "I hope that [Stojkovic] will stay for a long time and that Serbia will go to big competitions all the time."

Bernardo Silva apologised to Portugal fans following a dramatic 2-1 loss to Serbia in Lisbon on Sunday that left the Selecao facing a World Cup qualifying play-off.

Portugal only needed to avoid defeat in order to finish top of Group A and secure an automatic qualifying spot for the tournament in Qatar next year.

Renato Sanches' early strike put the hosts in the lead, but Dusan Tadic levelled and Aleksandar Mitrovic headed in a 90th-minute winner to seal sensationally seal Serbia's World Cup spot.

Manchester City midfielder Silva pulled no punches with his verdict on Portugal's performance.

"[It was a] terrible game for Portugal," Silva told O Jogo. "We managed to score the goal early, but then we stopped playing. Words fail me. We have to do more than we did today.

"We have a play-off, where we'll give our best. At home, with 65,000 people we had to do better. I want to apologise because they came to see a game they shouldn't have seen.

"The plan was to try to win the game. To have the ball. Something that didn't happen in any moment of the game. That at home and with the quality of our players is unacceptable. We have to see what failed and try to improve from there on."

Joao Palhinha agreed with Silva's assessment of the team's negative performance, but insisted they are good enough to qualify for the World Cup.

"We are here to take responsibility," Palhinha told RTP. "We didn't play a good game, we just defended in the second half and Serbia ended up having happiness in the final minutes, but [qualification is] still within our reach.

"Serbia played a good game, but we had the capacity and level to be superior. We are very sad, the dressing room is on the wane for not having achieved the direct qualification, but we have to go chasing them in the next games, because we have more than value to be in the World Cup.

"Life is not a constant of victories, all people who are successful in life go through difficulties and this feeling has to give us more strength."

Aleksandar Mitrovic's late winner saw Serbia seal their spot at the 2022 World Cup with a 2-1 victory over Portugal in Lisbon.

Portugal went ahead after just two minutes as Bernardo Silva capitalised on a defensive error to set up Renato Sanches, who opened the scoring with an unerring finish. 

Dusan Tadic's deflected strike levelled the scores later in the first half, with Rui Patricio partially culpable for allowing the ball to cross the line.

Substitute Mitrovic completed a dramatic turnaround in the 90th minute as he headed in from Tadic's cross to send Serbia top of Group A and condemn Portugal to the playoffs.

Portugal enjoyed a dream start as Silva dispossessed Nemanja Gudelj before finding Sanches, who advanced into the area and rifled past Predrag Rajkovic.

Dusan Vlahovic thought he had equalised 10 minutes later as he struck towards the bottom-right corner, but his left-footed effort bounced off the post and away from danger.

Serbia did draw level in the 33rd minute when Tadic's fierce strike from the edge of the area took a deflection, causing Patricio to fumble into his own net.

The hosts came within inches of reclaiming the lead after the interval as Sanches' blocked effort was cleared against Rajkovic's back and rolled just wide.

Serbia appeared surprisingly conservative in the second half but Mitrovic, who headed wide only minutes before, grabbed a dramatic winner with just a minute remaining of normal time as he nodded in at the back post from Tadic's cross to ensure his country's place at the World Cup.

Aleksandar Mitrovic's late winner saw Serbia seal their spot at the 2022 World Cup with a 2-1 victory over Portugal in Lisbon.

Portugal went ahead after just two minutes as Bernardo Silva capitalised on a defensive error to set up Renato Sanches, who opened the scoring with an unerring finish. 

Dusan Tadic's deflected strike levelled the scores later in the first half, with Rui Patricio partially culpable for allowing the ball to cross the line.

Substitute Mitrovic completed a dramatic turnaround in the 90th minute as he headed in from Tadic's cross to send Serbia top of Group A and condemn Portugal to the playoffs.

Portugal enjoyed a dream start as Silva dispossessed Nemanja Gudelj before finding Sanches, who advanced into the area and rifled past Predrag Rajkovic.

Dusan Vlahovic thought he had equalised 10 minutes later as he struck towards the bottom-right corner, but his left-footed effort bounced off the post and away from danger.

Serbia did draw level in the 33rd minute when Tadic's fierce strike from the edge of the area took a deflection, causing Patricio to fumble into his own net.

The hosts came within inches of reclaiming the lead after the interval as Sanches' blocked effort was cleared against Rajkovic's back and rolled just wide.

Serbia appeared surprisingly conservative in the second half but Mitrovic, who headed wide only minutes before, grabbed a dramatic winner with just a minute remaining of normal time as he nodded in at the back post from Tadic's cross to ensure his country's place at the World Cup.

Aleksandar Mitrovic's late winner saw Serbia seal their spot at the 2022 World Cup with a 2-1 win over Portugal in Lisbon.

Portugal went ahead after just two minutes as Bernardo Silva capitalised on a defensive error to set up Renato Sanches, who opened the scoring with an unerring finish. 

Dusan Tadic's deflected strike levelled the scores later in the first half, with Rui Patricio partially culpable for allowing the ball to cross the line.

Substitute Mitrovic completed a dramatic turnaround in the 90th minute as he headed in from Tadic's cross to send Serbia top of Group A and condemn Portugal to the playoffs.

The only similarity between Portugal and Brazil is that they will both have a 2022 World Cup spot secured by Sunday, according to Fernando Santos. 

Brazil booked their place in Qatar on Thursday with a 1-0 victory over Colombia, their 11th win in 12 qualifiers through which they have remained undefeated. 

Despite having accrued six points more than closest rivals Argentina, Tite's side receive regular criticism for a pragmatic approach and lack of flair. 

Portugal have come under fire for similar reasons during their World Cup qualifying campaign, with a 0-0 draw against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday doing little to assuage the frustration. 

A draw against Serbia at the Estadio da Luz on Sunday will be enough for Portugal to secure a place at the World Cup, which Santos believes would then be the only thing his team have in common with Brazil. 

Asked if he felt there were any similarities between Brazil and Portugal, Santos replied: "What I get from that question is that Brazil have qualified and that's what I believe will happen tomorrow with Portugal and we'll be present at the World Cup finals. Other than that, there is no comparison." 

Portugal were held to a 2-2 draw against Serbia in Belgrade back in March and will simply need to avoid defeat to seal top spot in Group A. 

The two teams have met five times since March 2015, with Portugal going unbeaten and claiming three wins.

"The idea cannot be to play for a draw. The two teams will try to win the game. That's what I think," said Santos. 

"I don't think it will be a game of patience. No team will play crazy, not even Serbia who need to win will play like that. 

"But Serbia always play to win. They won't be completely unbalanced. If they get unbalanced, they are taking more risks. 

"The two teams have great ability, but I believe Portugal will win the game." 

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos insisted there was little difference between a win and a draw against the Republic of Ireland as World Cup qualifying would still be decided against Serbia.

Santos' side were held to a goalless draw in Thursday's clash with Ireland, who have just one win to their name in World Cup qualifying.

The Euro 2016 winners had previously embarked on a five-game winning run across all competitions, scoring 16 times, but could manage just three shots on target in Dublin.

The stalemate leaves Portugal and Serbia both on 17 points with one game remaining and the top two will meet in Lisbon on Sunday in Group A's winner-takes-all decider.

Asked if he was happy with the result, Santos told RT3: "Naturally. In terms of qualification, winning 5-0 or drawing here was the same thing.

"Of course, I would have preferred to win 5-0, but the result is positive. Serbia have to play in our stadium to win the game.

"Obviously we wanted to win, we didn't want to draw, that's not what we came here for. They're a very aggressive and very physical opponent.

"In the attacking organisation, we let them create danger. The players tried but we always had difficulties – they were quick to close spaces."

Santos, who insisted he was "convinced" Portugal would still qualify, left out the likes of Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo for the visit to the Republic of Ireland.

He will also be without Pepe against Serbia after the centre-back was dismissed late on for two bookable offences.

Asked for clarification whether he had spared players to avoid yellow-card accumulated suspensions, Santos added: "I saved them because you never know if the players are conditioned or not.

"I wanted to have Pepe for the game, but I'm going to sleep well. We'll find the right players [for the Serbia game]."

Portugal were held to a goalless draw by the Republic of Ireland to leave Sunday's clash with Serbia as the decider for top spot in World Cup qualifying Group A.

Fernando Santos' men had scored 16 goals during their five-game winning streak across all competitions but could only muster two shots on target during a frustrating outing in Dublin.

Cristiano Ronaldo went the closest, though even the all-time leading scorer in men's international football could not break the deadlock in Thursday's clash.

The visitors, who saw Pepe dismissed late on for two bookable offences, and Serbia both sit on 17 points with one game remaining as the latter travel to Lisbon for a winner-takes-all decider.

Andre Silva forced the first save of the contest from Gavin Bazunu before Seamus Coleman's excellent last-ditch block denied Ronaldo as the visitors dominated the early proceedings.

However, the Republic of Ireland responded well and should have taken the lead on the stroke of half-time but Chiedozie Ogbene could only head over from close range.

Stephen Kenny's men continued industriously after the interval and almost punished Matheus Nunes' concentration lapse when Josh Cullen curled into Rui Patricio's hands.

Ronaldo, who later fired narrowly off target, then nodded wide following Silva's cross before the hosts saw Enda Stevens whip over from Ogbene's inviting delivery.

The visitors, who had Pepe dismissed for a second bookable offence after catching Callum Robinson with his hand, managed to hold on for a point despite the hosts thinking they had found a late winner through Matt Doherty, Will Keane's foul on Patricio cutting short the celebrations.

Europe's qualifying section for the 2022 World Cup reaches its dramatic climax over the next week, with eight more nations set to secure their places in Qatar.

There will be 50 matches played during this international window, during which the outcome of all 10 groups will be decided, with Denmark and Germany the only European nations to have already booked their tickets.

Indeed, the other eight group winners will seal automatic qualification for Qatar 2022, while another 10 nations will advance to March's play-offs as the runners-up.

The 10 second-placed teams will be joined by the two best group winners from the 2020-21 Nations League who have neither already qualified nor sealed a play-off spot via the group stage.

With plenty of excitement and drama guaranteed, Stats Perform takes a closer look at the most eye-catching fixtures, permutations and milestones.  

800 up for Ronaldo?

Another day and another milestone approaches for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is just two goals away from taking his career tally to 800.

The Portugal skipper could hit the landmark when his country face the Republic of Ireland on Thursday – failing that, they host Serbia three days later.

Should Portugal take maximum points at the Aviva Stadium, Fernando Santos’ men would then guarantee top spot in Group A by avoiding defeat against Serbia on Sunday.

 

Deja vu for Italy?

The reigning European champions missed out on the finals last time around, sparking a cultural reset that ultimately culminated in their brilliant Euro 2020 success earlier this year. But their place in Qatar is still far from secure.

Level on points with Switzerland at the top of Group C with two games remaining, the Azzurri must beat the Swiss when they face off on Friday and avoid defeat against Northern Ireland three days later to guarantee qualification. 

Four years ago they were fell to Sweden in the play-offs – failure this time around would be an even bigger shock.

Work to do for the Dutch

The Netherlands were also absent from Russia in 2018 and, despite leading Group G, they are not home and dry just yet.

Louis van Gaal’s side travel to Montenegro on Saturday while second-placed Norway host Latvia.

Just two points separate the top two, who lock horns at De Kuip on Tuesday in a game that will more than likely decide who wins the group.

Spain to avert Swede success?

The 2010 World Cup winners are not yet guaranteed a top-two finish in Group B, although they will be by avoiding defeat away to Greece on Thursday.

Spain are two points behind leaders Sweden, who travel to Georgia on the same day. They go head-to-head in what will surely be the group decider on Sunday, assuming they take maximum points three days earlier. 

 

France looking to avoid the Blues

The reigning world champions and recently crowned Nations League winners are not quite over the line in Group D, despite holding a three-point advantage and game in hand over second-placed Ukraine.

However, Les Bleus will secure top spot with a win over Kazakhstan on Saturday or, failing that, taking maximum points away to Finland on Tuesday. 

Who will top Group H?

Russia and Croatia are guaranteed top-two finishes in Group H, but with just two points separating them, the identity of the group winners is still very much up in the air.

After facing Cyprus and Malta respectively on Thursday, the two nations collide in Split on Sunday with one of them booking a place in Qatar and the other heading for the play-offs.

Second place up for grabs in Group J

Eight points clear of the chasing pack in Group J, Germany secured qualification with flying colours. But the battle for second place is not quite as straightforward.

Occupying second are Romania (13 points), followed closely by North Macedonia and Armenia (both 12), while Iceland (eight) still have an outside chance as well.

Armenia and North Macedonia face off on Thursday with Romania hosting Iceland.

The group then reaches its climax three days later as North Macedonia and Iceland lock horns, while Armenia host Germany and Romania travel to Liechtenstein – expect a rollercoaster ride in Group J!

Agent Jorge Mendes claims his client Cristiano Ronaldo "has never deserved the Ballon d'Or more" following his individual achievements at club and international level.

The Portugal star returned to Manchester United from Juventus after a successful year in terms of individual records, including becoming the all-time international top scorer while also finishing as the leading marksman in Serie A in 2020-21.

The veteran forward has continued to be prolific for United this term, scoring five goals in just six appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils.

Ronaldo was less successful on the team front as Juventus saw their grip on the Italian top-flight broken, finishing fourth, while also being knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16, and Portugal lost to Belgium at the same stage of the Euro 2020 finals.

However, Mendes feels the 36-year-old's remarkable personal achievements should make him the frontrunner for the coveted accolade.

"The numbers and statistics attached to Cristiano Ronaldo's name speak for themselves and should be enough for him to win another Ballon d'Or," Mendes told France Football.

"The absolutely remarkable total of 115 goals for the Portuguese national team makes him the record holder in the history of men's international football. This year he broke that 15-year-old record, to which he can add that of the top scorer in the history of professional football.

 

"All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time.

"It is true that this is an individual trophy, but let's not forget that Cristiano Ronaldo was the top scorer in the demanding Serie A and was also the top scorer in the last European Championship [making him the all-time top scorer in that competition].

"He holds the record for goals in the Champions League and is the only player in the world to have won everything in three different countries with maximum competitiveness, as was the case in England, Italy and Spain.

"All this at the age of 36, with an absolutely unique regularity, commitment and a phenomenal capacity to overcome difficulties. In my opinion, this year the Ballon d'Or has a name: Cristiano Ronaldo. For me, he has never deserved it more."

Ronaldo faces stern competition if he is to win a sixth Ballon d'Or, however, with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski netting the most goals in all club competitions among players in Europe's top five leagues last season (48, 12 more than Ronaldo) and he has already managed 13 this term.

Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi also outscored the Portugal star in all club competitions last season, and Messi claimed an international trophy with Argentina as he won the Copa America, finishing the tournament as the top scorer and top assist provider.

Meanwhile, midfielder Jorginho is being tipped as a contender after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

Cristiano Ronaldo said he promised to "always be looking for more and more and more" after scoring another hat-trick in Portugal's World Cup qualifying rout of Luxembourg.

Ronaldo netted his 58th career hat-trick – his 10th for Portugal – as the Selecao eased past minnows Luxembourg 5-0 on Tuesday.

The five-time Ballon d'Or, 36, winner scored two penalties within five minutes early in the first half before completing the treble three minutes from the end of the match after Bruno Fernandes and Joao Palhinha had also found the back of the net.

Portugal are one point behind Group A leaders Serbia, though they have a game in hand, heading into next month's crucial showdown on the road to Qatar 2022.

Ronaldo – who extended his all-time men's international goals record to 115 – wrote via Instagram: "Another victory, another step towards our goal, another historic night in defence of our colours!

"Everything becomes easier when we play at home and in front of an audience that cares for us from the first to the last minute…

"I had promised that I would always be looking for more and more and more!

"It's in my DNA and in our DNA, we're never content, we never lower our arms and we always go."

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos jumped to the defence of his experienced side after they cruised past Luxembourg 5-0 in their World Cup qualifier thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo's 58th career hat-trick and 10th international treble put hosts Portugal out of sight at the Estadio Algarve, where Joao Palhinha and Bruno Fernandes also got on the scoresheet on Tuesday.

The five-goal crushing left Portugal a point behind Group A leaders Serbia, albeit with a game in hand, with two matches remaining and the top two teams meet on the final matchday, in what is likely to be a winner-takes-all decider.

However, Santos' focus after the game was on the age of his squad as he quashed suggestions that his veterans were likely to let him down again, after exiting both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage.

"I hear a lot about it [the age of the squad], I even understand, but more changes than what we have been done over the past six years are difficult," Santos told reporters during his post-match his news conference, with set to be 37 heading into next year's World Cup.

"Just look at who was at the World [Cup], the European Championship and who is playing now. There are no age restrictions, it doesn't even make sense.

"Players do not have to stop playing for the national team because they are of more or less age, quality is what counts. 

"Fortunately, we have a lot of 30-year-old or 31-year-old players able to get here and play and the players have shown that [quality]."

Portugal will have to wait until November's international break to seal their fate and Santos appreciates the decisive nature of the Serbia clash while imploring his side to still improve.

"We managed to restrain the opponent and take advantage of every situation to transform them into goalscoring opportunities," he told RTP after the game.

"We did very well until the 25th minute, with how we played and what we had seen from Luxembourg.

"After that we also did well, but we started to want to do everything in a hurry, in one touch, two touches, and we even allowed Luxembourg to get ahead.

"The last game will be decisive, whatever happens in the next round, neither team will be out, although I believe we will win [against the Republic of Ireland] – it will be decisive."

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick as Portugal cruised past Luxembourg 5-0 in Tuesday's World Cup qualifying clash.

Ronaldo took just eight minutes to open the scoring at the Estadio Algarve as he finished from the penalty spot before doubling his tally soon after in the same fashion.

Bruno Fernandes netted a third inside a decisive opening 20 minutes before the Manchester United playmaker assisted Joao Palhinha for the fourth in the second half.

Ronaldo then secured his hat-trick with three minutes remaining to cap the hosts' dominant performance and ensure they remain a point behind Group A leaders Serbia – who have played a game more – ahead of the next international break.

Sebastien Thill and Anthony Moris were the guilty parties for the early penalties with fouls on Bernardo Silva and Ronaldo, the latter clinically converting both.

Things went from bad to worse for the visitors as Fernandes made it 3-0 despite Moris getting a hand to his right-footed drive following Silva's throughball after 17 minutes.

Ronaldo almost claimed his hat-trick on the stroke of half-time but was denied by Moris, who also saved Silva's acrobatic volley.

Danel Sinani brought a rare save from Rui Patricio, with both Palhinha and Fernandes missing the target at the other end after being found by Nuno Mendes' searching deliveries.

Ronaldo's overhead-kick deserved to complete his treble, but Moris tipped over before Palhinha headed home from Fernandes' resulting corner.

Luxembourg almost grabbed a consolation goal through Gerson Rodrigues, but his left-footed strike was turned away by Patricio and Ronaldo completed the scoring as he headed in from Ruben Neves' deep cross.

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