Spain boss Luis Enrique insisted no amount of pressure could affect him ahead of his side's key World Cup qualifier against Greece.

The 2010 world champions are in action in Athens on Friday, with an automatic place at Qatar 2022 potentially on the line.

Should Sweden defeat Georgia in the earlier Group B match, Spain will be unable to catch them in top spot if they do not take all three points against Greece.

John van't Schip's side could still clinch a top-two finish if they beat La Roja, whom they held to a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in March.

Yet Luis Enrique does not believe the fear of missing out on a guaranteed place at next year's finals will disrupt their preparation. 

"Luis Enrique was born with pressure," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I've been dealing with pressure since I was 18 years old and I feel comfortable.

"After seeing how the team is training, I can only convey the confidence they give me.

"We've had pressure for every game. I haven't looked for an example in any other game.

"Greece are a really well organised team, that's the truth. In the reverse game we created few chances, fewer than we wanted. They play well and that's why we have to be good in pressing.

"I'll sign now for a game in which we keep the opposition trapped in their box."

For Spain, the game has been compared to their Euro 2020 group match against Slovakia, when a 5-0 win sent them through to the knockouts behind Sweden after they drew their opening two games.

If they win, they will head into their final game against Sweden knowing that finishing top of their group is still in their own hands.

"It's only one game," said Luis Enrique. "We're not going to make the mistake of thinking it's Sweden. We'll think about Greece – nothing else exists.

"Spain are obliged to try to win every game. The obligation is to win every game and to do it with our weapons. There's always pressure to win.

"I'm really lucky, because after seeing the two training sessions at Las Rozas, I'm more than optimistic. The belief, the rhythm, the quality they have... I feel more than confident and calm when preparing and evaluating this game.

"I'm very fortunate to be the coach of a country that has at least 60 players of international standard, at least for me."

Declan Rice has been withdrawn from the England squad for their latest round of World Cup qualifiers due to illness.

The midfielder has not been able to train since reporting to St George's Park and has returned to West Ham.

He will miss England's qualifiers with Albania and San Marino, from which they need four points to secure a place at the World Cup in Qatar.

England have not replaced Rice in the squad, with Mason Mount and Luke Shaw yet to join the group and still being assessed. 

Chelsea midfielder Mount is recovering from dental surgery while Shaw suffered a concussion in Manchester United's defeat to Manchester City last Saturday.

Rice has been excellent form this season for a West Ham side just three points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea.

Of Premier League midfielders to have attempted 500 passes this season, only Rodri (92.3) has completed more than Rice (91.7).

 

Hansi Flick would like all of Germany's players to get vaccinated against coronavirus, but does not judge those who wish not to be.

On Tuesday, Germany confirmed that Bayern Munich defender Niklas Sule – who is fully vaccinated – had tested positive for COVID-19. He was immediately placed into quarantine.

Squads no longer have to do mandatory PCR testing, but Germany elected to do so. With Sule testing positive, Serge Gnabry, Jamal Musiala, Karim Adeyemi and Joshua Kimmich were classed as close contacts and had to leave the training camp to isolate.

Another four players, who have not been named, were also said to have contact with Sule, but were allowed to remain at the camp. They will train alone and be monitored closely over the coming days.

Apart from Sule, no other positive cases were recorded.

While the vaccination status of Adeyemi, Musiala and Gnabry is not known, Bayern star Kimmich has publicly revealed he wishes to wait for more research to be completed on the vaccines before taking up the offer.

Though he would have preferred to avoid the subject and instead focus on Germany's World Cup qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Armenia, Flick reiterated his opinion that everybody should get vaccinated, but also stressed it must be down to the individual to make such a decision.

"There are enough experts who deal with it," Flick told a news conference on Wednesday.

"They have come to the conclusion that there is no compulsory vaccination. There are people in all areas who do not get vaccinated.

"We are in the public eye. We also have a great responsibility. But I've said everything about how I feel about it.

"I want the players to be vaccinated, but that's up to them. I hope that there will no longer be issues such as the five players we have to send home due to coronavirus, that is what I would like as a coach."

There has been a suggestion that players who are unvaccinated may not be able to compete at the 2022 World Cup.

"Qatar is still a long way off, we will see what comes next," he added.

"Our team doctor said enough yesterday. The fact is that we thought about it beforehand and tested ourselves. We feel it is our responsibility to ensure that we are all healthy.

"That something like this would happen to us was almost foreseeable. But we have no compulsory vaccination. I believe that people should not be judged who do not get vaccinated.

"For me the only way out of the pandemic is to get vaccinated – even in professional football. That is my opinion. But everyone has the right to refuse."

Flick also confirmed that Julian Draxler would miss Thursday's match against Liechtenstein with a muscle injury.

Emile Smith Rowe has impressed for Arsenal this term, but he is now revelling in getting the chance to train and play alongside a Tottenham star.

Smith Rowe – who is Arsenal's joint-top scorer in the Premier League this season with four goals – was initially left out of Gareth Southgate's England squad for this month's World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino.

However, the withdrawals of James Ward-Prowse and Marcus Rashford, as well as doubts over Mason Mount's fitness, resulted in the 21-year-old midfielder linking up with Southgate's senior squad at St George's Park.

Smith Rowe is thrilled by the opportunity, though perhaps risked the wrath of Arsenal fans as he singled out training with Harry Kane – England's captain and Spurs' talisman, albeit one who has struggled for form this season – as a particularly surreal moment. 

"Obviously I play against these guys every week but for England it's always different," he told reporters.

"Wearing the same training kit and passing the ball to each other – it's crazy to be alongside these great players. Harry Kane, captain of England, what he's done – it's crazy to be training with him. [Raheem] Sterling as well.

"I always knew training would be difficult. It still hasn't sunk in I'm actually here yet."

Smith Rowe has joined club-mate Bukayo Saka in the squad.

Saka impressed at Euro 2020, though the youngster was one of three England players to miss a penalty in the shoot-out defeat to Italy in the final.

"Me and Bukayo are so close off the pitch, I'm so happy for him every time he plays for England," Smith Rowe said.

"It's extra special to be here with him, we've both come up from Hale End [the Arsenal academy]. It's a big moment for us and for Arsenal as well."

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!

Arsenal youngster Emile Smith Rowe has revealed how kicking bad drinking and eating habits has helped his rapid rise following his maiden England call-up this week.

Smith Rowe earned his first-ever senior England call-up for World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino after Marcus Rashford and James Ward-Prowse's withdrawal.

The 21-year-old attacking midfielder burst onto the scene with Arsenal late last season and has scored in each of the Gunners' last three league games.

Smith Rowe told The Guardian that his recent rise came after abandoning bad habits around diet and hydration.

"I didn’t used to eat that well," Smith said. "I wasn’t drinking that well. Before games, I wasn’t really that hydrated. I’ve tried now to focus so much on it.

"Arsenal are strict but I didn’t really listen, to be honest. I think that’s where I went wrong. Now I’m listening all the time."

He added: "Chocolate … I like Nando’s a lot – maybe that’s killing me a little bit. I’ve tried to cut out chocolate and takeaways as much as I can.

"The club have sorted me out with a chef. His name is Chris and he comes to my house every day. I live with my mum and she normally cooks but she doesn’t have to any more. Chris cooks for me and her.

"With hydration, there’s loads of stuff we should be taking before a game and, yeah, before I was a bit too lazy."

Smith Rowe has made 11 Premier League appearances this season, netting four goals and providing two assists. He also scored in the EFL Cup against AFC Wimbledon in September.

Germany's national team director Oliver Bierhoff has confirmed Niklas Sule is the player to have tested positive for coronavirus.

It was announced earlier on Tuesday that a member of Germany's squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Armenia had returned a positive PCR test result and had immediately gone into isolation, though the player was not named at the time.

Four other players who were judged to have been close contacts also had to isolate, though no other positive results had been recorded within the camp.

At a subsequent news conference, Bierhoff confirmed Bayern Munich centre-back Sule was the player to have contracted COVID-19. 

Sule is double vaccinated, and the earlier update stated he had not shown any symptoms.

His club-mate Joshua Kimmich, who has publicly confirmed he has not yet received either dose of his vaccine, is one of the other four players to have gone into quarantine.

Kimmich, 26, explained last month that he is not opposed to the prospect of getting vaccinated at some stage, but he wishes to wait for further research to be conducted.

Fellow Bayern players Serge Gnabry and Jamal Musiala have also been forced into isolation, given they were part of the same travelling party to the training camp, while Karim Adeyemi also has to quarantine.

"The squad is still strong, and we will prepare for the two games in World Cup qualification from noon today and make them successful," said Bierhoff.

"The situation is not easy for the players, but there is no huge concern now."

Asked about Kimmich, Bierhoff said: "It was clear that if someone in his environment tests positive, he would be put in quarantine.

"Of course, that's difficult to accept when you have acted correctly and paid attention to everything."

Bierhoff was joined at the media conference by Germany's team doctor Tim Meyer, who explained the length of the quarantine will depend on the regulations set by the local health authority in Wolfsburg.

Asked if Gnabry, Musiala and Adeyemi were vaccinated, Dr Meyer said: "I won't give you any information about that. The vaccination plays a role in the decision, but also how close the contact was.

"I have already given my personal opinion on vaccination against COVID-19. Joshua Kimmich's opinion is also known. We have to accept that."

Dr Meyer added that four other players have been classed as contacts, though will be allowed to remain at the accommodation and will be tested again in the coming days.

Germany have also lost Florian Wirtz and Nico Schlotterbeck to muscular injuries, with Kevin Volland and Wolfsburg duo Ridle Baku and Maximilian Arnold added to the squad.

A Germany player has tested positive for coronavirus, with four others also forced into quarantine.

The player in question, who has not been named, is fully vaccinated and currently asymptomatic, according to a DFB statement issued on Tuesday.

All players and staff were PCR tested upon their arrival at Germany's training camp ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Armenia.

Only one player tested positive, but four others have been placed into isolation after being judged to be close contacts.

According to reports, Germany subsequently cancelled their training session on Tuesday, though the DFB statement did not confirm this.

Oliver Bierhoff, director of the national teams and academy, said: "The number of coronavirus cases has risen sharply across the country.

"Therefore, we will continue to implement the hygiene and behavioural measures in place for the final international game of the year, in order for us to handle the current situation as responsibly as possible.

"This news coming so soon before the final two World Cup qualifiers is very tough, both for the coaching staff and the whole team, but health and welfare is our top priority, of course.

"I hope the player who tested positive recovers soon and that he remains asymptomatic."

Germany has seen a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. Indeed, last week, 169,483 cases were recorded (according to World Health Organisation statistics) – the largest spike in the country since December 2020.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not thinking about retiring from professional football despite needing a physio to watch his every step.

Since returning to Milan in January 2020, Ibrahimovic has scored 30 goals and supplied nine assists in 54 games in all competitions. 

However, the striker has struggled with injuries and featured in only half of the Rossoneri's Serie A games in 2020-21, while he was forced to pull out of Euro 2020 duty with Sweden. 

Still, he became the fourth-oldest scorer in Serie A history this season when he struck against Bologna last month and took his domestic league tally to 400 versus Roma a week later.

Ibrahimovic acknowledged he has had to learn to listen to his body more and seek treatment as quickly as he can, though it has not made him think about hanging up his boots. 

"Last season I had more injuries than I usually have and have had before. But it's because I didn't think about taking it easy when I felt something, I just powered on. I have that mentality. I give 200 per cent," said Ibrahimovic. 

"After I turned 30, I noticed the pain does not go away, it just moves within the body. 

"What I have changed is that now I have a physio that follows me everywhere in Italy 24 hours a day. At the very least, he is right there poking. 

"That's the only change I made. As soon as I feel something, I want to take care of it immediately." 

He added: "We always want to play, but I have to find the right balance considering the injuries I've had. 

"You learn something new every day. I get to know by body better with every day that passes. But as my body ages, my head becomes younger and I look more handsome. 

"I haven't set a date to quit. I want to continue as long as possible and not think about when it will end. I don't want to be sad, like someone who quits thinking he could've played again." 

Ibrahimovic retired from international duty after Euro 2016 but has since returned to the fold, making his comeback for Sweden in March. 

An Achilles injury forced him to withdraw from the squad in the previous international break, but Sweden boss Janne Andersson has been impressed by his recovery. 

If Sweden beat Georgia on Thursday, they will go into their final World Cup qualifier against Spain three days later knowing a point will be enough for them to top Group B and book their place in Qatar – assuming La Roja beat Greece beforehand.

Andersson refused to confirm whether Ibrahimovic was ready to play in both games, though. 

"If we're talking about Zlatan and his physique, he has looked surprisingly good. Last night [the Milan derby] I think he looked fit – the matches before that too," said Andersson. 

"A few weeks ago he looked a bit rusty but he has looked great since, so we will see how much I will play him." 

Paul Pogba has sustained a thigh injury and will miss France's final two World Cup qualifiers. 

The Manchester United midfielder sustained the injury during a shooting drill on Monday, pulling up after dragging an effort wide. 

Pogba shouted out in pain as he connected with the ball and subsequently limped off the pitch at France's Clairefontaine base. 

It was subsequently confirmed by the French Football Federation (FFF) that he would be unable to play against Kazakhstan on Saturday or Finland three days later. 

Jordan Veretout was named as his replacement, with Pogba leaving his international team-mates on Tuesday. 

While losing Pogba may not be a massive concern for coach Didier Deschamps given the impressive array of options at his disposal and the fact France will seal top spot in Group D with one win, the injury comes at a bad time for the player. 

Pogba started the season well with United but has since hit an erratic patch of form, meaning a spell on the sidelines will rob him of the chance to get back into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's starting XI. 

Italy boss Roberto Mancini has called up Atalanta's Matteo Pessina and Lazio midfielder Danilo Cataldi to his latest squad after losing Roma duo Lorenzo Pellegrini and Nicolo Zaniolo to injury.

The European champions face Switzerland and Northern Ireland in their final two qualifiers for the Qatar 2022 World Cup and currently sit top of Group C on goal difference, level on 14 points with the Swiss ahead of their crucial encounter in Rome on Friday.

Mancini, who is already without Marco Verratti due to a hip injury, confirmed earlier on Monday at a media conference that Pellegrini (knee) and Zaniolo (calf) will return to their club.

"Zaniolo was a bit unlucky because he suffered two serious injuries. He is young and he has the qualities to get over it," he said.

"It could have been an important game for him, but he has a problem and we can't take any risk. I don't think he needs my advice, he has the quality and he can improve in everything.

"We will surely replace them [Pellegrini and Zaniolo] because we also need to assess [Nicolo] Barella. We didn't call Pessina because he is not ready."

Despite this, Mancini ultimately did decide to turn to Pessina, as well as Cataldi, who receives his first senior call-up since 2017 after a solid start to the season at Lazio.

The former Manchester City manager did have better news about his defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci appearing to be fit to play despite missing Juventus' 1-0 win against Fiorentina at the weekend.

"They feel well, we have a training session today. We'll see how everyone feels." 

Can Cataldi step up for the Azzurri?

While Mancini is suffering from something of a midfield crisis, having players with the quality of Pessina and Cataldi to call on is not a bad problem to have.

It may be the first call-up for Cataldi in over four years, but he has achieved it off the back of some eye-catching performances at club level for Maurizio Sarri's men.

When measured against Pellegrini, whose role he will fill, Cataldi leads the way in pass success percentage (91.2), albeit the 27-year-old has only started four of his 10 league appearances, while the Roma captain has started 11.

Cataldi also has a superior pass completion rate in the opposition half, with 84.7 per cent compared to Pellegrini's 79.7, so his numbers do not appear to be indicative of him only playing easy passes.

Whether Cataldi gets an opportunity to win only his second cap remains to be seen, but he has clearly caught the eye of Mancini at least.

France boss Didier Deschamps insists he will continue to select players on merit and not in response to "buzz" ahead of his team's final two World Cup qualifiers.

The world champions sit top of Group D and will qualify for Qatar 2022 if they win either of their upcoming matches against Kazakhstan and Finland.

At a press conference ahead of the two games, Deschamps was asked why he has not yet selected Lens right-back Jonathan Clauss, despite the player making a "buzz" in Ligue 1 this season.

"A buzz? But who is making the buzz?" Deschamps asked with a smile. "I watch the matches, so a lot of players, including this Lens player, of course. Buzz or no buzz, that's not what will lead me to select a player or not.

"Of course, [Clauss] is one of the players we follow. With the characteristics that are his, after it is also a question of competition in the position. I know you're waiting for something new at every selection, but I'm not here for that."

It was put to Deschamps that perhaps the 29-year-old's age or lack of experience in the Champions League or Europa League had put the coach off selecting him.

"I have always incorporated new ones, and to draw a parallel to the age of the player, Jordan Veretout is more or less the same age," he said.

"He arrived late, he plays in Rome, in European competition of course, but that does not prevent [Clauss from being picked. [It's the same for] those of 18 years, I select [them] when I think it is the [right] moment. The 'buzz' is closed."

Does Clauss deserve a place with Les Bleus?

Deschamps has named a 23-man squad for the upcoming games, including Bayern Munich's Benjamin Pavard and Lyon's Leo Dubois, both of whom can play in Clauss’s usual position of right back.

The manager has decided to stick with what he knows for now, given the importance of getting over the line in World Cup qualifying, but is Clauss’s form at Lens more than just "buzz"?

It is difficult to compare him to Pavard as the Bayern defender only returned to action in September after an ankle injury and has only played nine games, less than half of which were in the Bundesliga.

If Clauss is going to force his way into the France squad, a likelier route may be to do so at the expense of his fellow Ligue 1 competitor, Dubois.

The obvious reason for the public clamour for Clauss is his two goals and six assists from 13 league games this season – three of those (one goal, two assists) came in his team's 4-0 thrashing of Troyes on Friday, whereas Dubois is yet to register his first goal involvement in 11 appearances.

 

However, it must be noted that Clauss primarily plays as a right wing-back, and sometimes even as a right midfielder for Lens, while Dubois predominantly plays as an orthodox full-back.

That goes someway to explaining how Clauss has created 28 chances, compared to just six from Dubois.

The Lyon man has the upper hand in terms of passing and defensive play, with superior percentages in passing accuracy (85.4 to 77.3), dribble success (58.3 to 47.1), duel success (60.6 to 56) and tackle success (60.7 to 50), though some of these may be down to Dubois operating in less-congested areas of the pitch.

Clauss comes out on top when it comes to interceptions though, making 27 so far, more than twice as many as Dubois (12).

Either way, Deschamps has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, and it cannot be a massive surprise to see him stick with the players he knows well at the end of a qualifying campaign that has not always been comfortable.  

But if Clauss can maintain his high standards, he might just get the opportunity many feel he deserves next year when Deschamps turns his attention towards World Cup preparation friendlies.

It is all change in the England squad, with two players dropping out, and Emile Smith Rowe earning a first senior call up from Gareth Southgate.

Smith Rowe has been in excellent form for Arsenal this season, but was not initially included in Southgate's squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino.

The midfielder, who was handed Arsenal's number 10 shirt for 2021-22, has appeared in every Premier League game for the Gunners this term.

His tally of 15 chances created ranks him second in Arsenal's squad, behind Bukayo Saka (19). He has provided two league assists and scored four goals, meaning he is the club's joint-top scorer in the top flight alongside captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

After initially arriving at St George's Park to be part of the England Under-21 squad, Smith Rowe will instead join the senior side after Marcus Rashford and James Ward-Prowse dropped out.

Rashford has only just returned from a long injury lay off following shoulder surgery, and will remain at Manchester United in order to work his way back to fitness, while Southampton's Ward-Prowse is ill.

Southgate might also be without regulars Luke Shaw and Mason Mount. The United full-back is following concussion protocol after sustaining a head injury in Saturday's derby defeat to Manchester City and will continue to be assessed by the club before being released for international duty. 

Mount, meanwhile, has had his arrival pushed back by dental surgery and will be monitored over the coming days.

England host Albania on Friday, before taking on San Marino three days later. Four points from the two matches will guarantee their place in Qatar.

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez has said that the country's "golden generation" of players should be appreciated more, even if they do not win a trophy.

Speaking ahead of the final round of European qualifiers for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, Martinez insisted that his Belgian side has proven how good they are by consistently being the number one ranked team by FIFA.

The Red Devils will seal qualification for Qatar if they beat Estonia at home on Saturday, or if Wales fail to beat Belarus in Cardiff on the same day.

Speaking to HLN, when asked about a lack of silverware, the former Wigan Athletic and Everton manager said: "This generation has changed Belgian football forever. They have twelve months until the next tournament. 

"I think we should be more attached to this generation. What this generation has given us is unique in Belgian football, and whatever happens, a generation with silverware or not, is not going to change what this generation has done.

"You will never find, or it will be very difficult to find, a generation with eight or nine players with over 100 caps that kept their number one ranking for such a long time, that have taken such a commitment to the national team.

"In the moment, they didn't need it. They could easily concentrate on their careers at club level, but the way that they want to develop the next generation, this generation goes a bit further than just wanting to have silverware.

"I think they teach us that we can challenge for silverware, we can challenge with the best national teams in the world, and that for me is more important because it will have an effect down the line.

"We need to enjoy it. This is a wonderful time for Belgian football. The consistency we had, we lost two games in the Nations League and were still number one in the world. Nobody gives you that status.

"It is because these players have been consistently winning in the last two years in a way that other national teams couldn't do.

"Of course, we cannot be happy with not winning, because that's not why you play football. You play football to try to win, but the reality is that the quality and commitment of this generation goes a bit further than winning silverware."

 

Questions have been raised in Belgium about Martinez being reluctant to bring in fresh faces, but the 48-year-old disagrees, believing that it makes sense to keep a consistent team together, while also defending his record of bringing new players in.

"My job is to try and create a team based on talented players who have been committed to the national team and who keep giving to the national team," he said.

"That's why we have eight players who have almost 100 caps, which is very rare. On the other side, we have had 24 debutants, which is a new squad completely.

"Of course, you can analyse it whichever way you want, but we have been really pleased with the balance. We don't have to change [for the sake of] change. 

"The opportunity of playing the Nations League, the European Championships and now the qualification for the World Cup all overlapping each other is giving us that smooth transition.

"It's a really good opportunity for the young players to show what they can do. It is not about the coach's decision. The generations can compete with each other, and football makes the decision.

"Any time there is an opportunity you need to show that you are ready as a youngster, and we have seen it. Jeremy Doku showed that he was ready and he started against Italy. This is not a specific coaching decision.

"This is a specific assessment of what happens in training, and we just promote that competition on the pitch.

"It is going to be a new opportunity for new faces, players who have been involved with us like Divock Origi, he hasn't played a lot at club level, he's got a good opportunity.

"We have a brand-new opportunity for a player like Dante Vanzeir, that he represents the great story of Union [SG]. You have the opportunity to see Charles De Ketelaere, confirming the good signs he showed against Italy.

"We are here to be a team, and I felt that every time we are here on the football pitch, we look like a group of players that have been together for a long time and that's the measurement that I always take into the teams."

Martinez also agreed with recent comments from Kevin De Bruyne that Belgium do not have the same depth as countries like France, adding “There are many aspects that makes our national team unique, and we always need to look at those.

"For example, we are a nation that represents 11 million people, that means that we cannot just select the players who are in good moments of form because we cannot afford to lose one talent.

"This golden generation has taken Belgium to a level that has never been seen before. To be over three years the number one team in the world, it shows we cannot treat our players as if we are going to have 100-200 at the same level that we can pick from.

"We have to work in a different way, go side-by-side with the talent through good moments, through difficult moments, and we cannot choose in that way, so it is the way that how we want to be successful is not the way that other national teams can do it, and that's the reality.

"The Nations League finals for us was the right place to be. We have to remember that, we were [part of] the best four national teams in Europe, and we had to beat Denmark and England to get there.

"I think that's something we need to appreciate. Okay, we lost a game against the world champions, and we were very very close, so it cannot be seen as a failure."

England manager Gareth Southgate has said he is confused by comments from Jurgen Klopp about his treatment of Liverpool players on international duty.

Klopp has previously raised concerns about Southgate's use of Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield, as well as his justification for leaving Joe Gomez out of the England squad on the basis of a lack of game time at club level, while Manchester City's John Stones has continued to be picked despite spending much of the season on the bench.

Southgate has selected Liverpool duo Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson in his squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino.

"I don't quite know why he keeps having a swing, you'd have to ask him," Southgate told reporters.

"I think we've always got on reasonably well. I've noticed quite a few articles and quite a few comments, which is always interesting to see."

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