England began their World Cup year with a 2-1 friendly victory over Switzerland at Wembley on Saturday thanks to Harry Kane's late winner.

The Three Lions were by no means spectacular, but Gareth Southgate will in all likelihood be content as they got the job done despite fielding a somewhat unfamiliar starting XI.

Nevertheless, Southgate may have expected more from a first half that Switzerland had by far the better of, with Breel Embolo's headed opener one of nine shots to England's two.

But a fierce Luke Shaw hit right before the break had the hosts level at the interval.

The hosts enjoyed greater control in the second half and eventually dealt the decisive blow via Kane's penalty, his 49th international strike, leaving him behind only Wayne Rooney (53) for the most England goals.

Victory looked unlikely for a while, however. The Three Lions found themselves trailing after 22 minutes as Embolo nodded in from Xherdan Shaqiri's right-wing cross.

It would have been 2-0 a few moments later were it not for Jordan Pickford, whose sharp reflexes ensured Fabian Frei's goal-bound effort was pushed onto the crossbar.

Ricardo Rodriguez's long-range strike forced Pickford into action again late in the half, before Embolo scuffed the rebound wide.

England capitalised on those let-offs on the stroke of half-time when Shaw ran on to Conor Gallagher's cut-back and smashed home from 20 yards.

Shortly after the restart, Kane's attempted lob from a tight angle came back off goalkeeper Jonas Omlin's face and debutant Marc Guehi's glancing header at the resulting corner flew agonisingly wide.

England's belief grew as the half progressed and Kane made no mistake from the spot late on after Steven Zuber handled Guehi's header inside the box.

The CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying format is too tough on the players, with Thiago Silva keen for an alternative that can aid performance to be found. 

In the current system, South American teams play one another twice in a single group for a total of 18 matches. The top four qualify for the World Cup, with the fifth-placed team entering a play-off against a team from Asia. 

Given the scale of the continent and the fact many players ply their trade with European clubs, huge distances need to be traversed and matches can be played at significantly varying altitudes and temperatures in the space of just a few days. 

Brazil centre-back Silva believes a change is needed, with FIFA having reportedly met with some players to discuss what a new format could look like for the first 48-team World Cup in 2026. 

"It's not the 18 games, but the travelling we do. It's a lot of mileage compared to the Europeans, who play close together," Silva was quoted as saying by Globo Esporte. 

"There's a lot of wear and tear, in addition to the climate, which is totally different from what we are used to in Europe. 

"Me and the team had a hard time training in Teresopolis, which is colder than Rio de Janeiro [where Brazil played Chile on Thursday]. This can hinder performance. 

"If we could somehow find a balance in these trips, it would certainly facilitate our stay and our performances. 

"It's definitely unnecessary wear and tear, in my opinion." 

After defeating Chile 4-0 in the heat of Rio on Thursday, Brazil play their final qualifier against Bolivia at over 3,500 metres above sea level on Tuesday.

Leonardo Bonucci has no doubt Italy will recover from their World Cup qualifying humiliation to be a major power once again, pointing out they produced a similar response not so long ago.

Italy were incredibly defeated 1-0 by North Macedonia in Thursday's Qatar 2022 qualifying play-off semi-final, with Aleksandar Trajkovski's stoppage-time winner stunning world football.

Roberto Mancini's men had dominated the match, but Trajkovski's speculative long-range effort left Azzurri players and coaching staff looking dismayed.

It marked a monumental change in fortunes from last year when a largely unfancied Italy side won Euro 2020, which was seen a huge achievement given their absence from Russia 2018.

As such, this will be the first time in World Cup history Italy have missed consecutive tournaments, with their failure to reach the 2018 edition instigating something of rebuild of the senior set-up.

Mancini has seemingly escaped much of the criticism, with many fans of the opinion he overachieved significantly when guiding them to European Championship success last year, and Bonucci appears to be confident Italy will respond swiftly and efficiently.

Bonucci, who missed Thursday's defeat due to injury, wrote on Instagram: "The two emotions are at opposite ends. The great euphoria and joy of the summer [at Euro 2020] are clearly contrasted with the disappointment and bitterness of this exclusion, exacerbated even more by not being able to help my team-mates for those 90 minutes.

"Now is the time to look ahead. Last summer we took the credit and praise for having done something unique; today we must take responsibility for not having earned the passage for our own demerits, more than for the merits of others.

"It is time for concrete and in-depth analysis to start over, to give Italy and the Italians what they deserve.

"We have done this before. And the climb has already begun, for me, for us.

"It will be hard to get back to the top, but we have already shown that we know how to get there. The future is now!"

 

Roberto Mancini says Italy must "take some time to reflect" and "work towards the future" after they failed to qualify for a second consecutive World Cup.

The Azzurri will not feature in the tournament in Qatar this year after suffering a sensational 1-0 play-off defeat to North Macedonia on Thursday.

Italy won Euro 2020 by beating England on penalties in the final at Wembley last July, but suffered heartbreak in Palermo this week.

Mancini's future has been called into question in certain quarters, but the head coach says it is important to look at where his side felt short and put the agony behind them.

He posted on Instagram: "Sometimes football can be a ruthless metaphor for life.

"Last summer we were on the top of Europe after having completed one of the most beautiful feats in the history of the national team. A few hours ago we woke up in one of the most dramatic points.

"We have gone from total joy to frustrating disappointment.

"It is really hard to accept, but also accepting the defeats in life is part of a healthy path of human and sporting growth.

"Let's take some time to reflect and understand clearly. The only right move now is to raise your head and work towards the future."

Roberto Mancini has "worked miracles" in charge of Italy and should not be hounded out of the role after their stunning failure to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.

That is the view of former Italy international Antonio Cassano, who described the current Azzurri vintage as "mediocre", citing last year's Euro 2020 triumph as proof of Mancini's brilliance.

Italy suffered a shock 1-0 loss to North Macedonia on Thursday to miss out on the World Cup for a second edition in a row, with some pointing the finger of blame of boss Mancini.

However, Cassano, who played 39 times and scored 10 goals for his country, said those critics "should be ashamed".

"Let's face it: our national team is a mediocre team and Mancini took them to the top of Europe last summer, making a miracle, playing in a way never seen before," he told Bobo TV. 

"I am truly sorry for Roberto, whoever asks for his resignation should be ashamed.

"We should all pray that Mancini will remain at the helm of the national team, he is the lifeline of Italy.

"[Ciro] Immobile, [Lorenzo] Insigne... many players seemed to me in difficulty. Italy has a mediocre team and Mancini had worked miracles so far."

The 39-year-old, who last played for his country in 2014, said Italy had been missing a talisman since Christian Vieri left the international stage in 2005.

He said: "Bobo, we haven't had a striker in the national team since you left."

Lionel Messi will reassess his playing future with the national team after the World Cup in Qatar later this year, with retirement not ruled out.

Messi was among the scorers on Friday as already-qualified Argentina eased past Venezuela in World Cup qualifying at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires.

The 34-year-old guided Argentina to a breakthrough Copa America triumph last year, the nation's first since 1993. Argentina have not the World Cup since Diego Maradona led them to glory in 1986, with Messi getting closest in 2014 when they reached the final in Brazil.

Messi, who joined Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona last August, admitted that his international playing future beyond Qatar was on his mind.

"I don’t know what I will do after the World Cup. I am thinking about what is coming," Messi told reporters after the Venezuela win. "After Qatar I will have to reassess many things."

He added: "I don’t know [about playing on], the truth is I don’t know. I think about what's coming next, only think about facing Ecuador [on Tuesday]. The preparation matches in June and September.

"Let’s hope these go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Messi added that lifting his first major trophy with Argentina last year at the Copa would not have a bearing on his decision.

"It has been a while that I am happy here, since before winning the Copa," he said. "I am thankful for all this they make me feel every time I come to Argentina."

The PSG star's goal against Venezuela extended Argentina's impressive record of never losing in the past 12 years when Messi has scored.

Messi has represented Argentina 159 times, having debuted in 2005, scoring 81 goals.

Argentina remain undefeated in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification, after they defeated Venezuela 3-0 on Friday.

In the Albiceleste's first game at La Bombonera since the passing of Diego Maradona, it was a particularly emotional atmosphere and the already-qualified home side made it 11 wins from 16 qualifiers.

The raucous home support belied the largely lacklustre performance on the pitch, however, with Nicolas Gonzalez's goal giving them breathing room. Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi netted in the final quarter of an hour to seal the win.

The match's complexion was dominated by Argentine possession which did not exactly translate to many chances of substance.

In the opening 30 minutes, the Albiceleste managed three shots for a cumulative xG of 0.07 despite 71 per cent possession.

Yet the game soon opened up in transition, and Argentina could finally attack space that otherwise wasn't presented. From the ensuing chaos, Alexis Mac Allister quickly won back possession and played in Rodrigo De Paul, who then provided the assist across goal for Gonzalez.

Venezuela had an opportunity to equalise in the 39th minute through Josef Martinez with Argentina goalkeeper Franco Armani scrambling, but he put his close-range shot off target from Salomon Rondon's ball.

Martinez again had an opportunity to equalise in the 54th minute, with a free header from close range but missed.

Argentina were able to effectively kill the game off late in the second half through substitute Angel Di Maria, chipping Wuilker Farinez after De Paul's ball over the top.

Messi then added a third three minutes later in the 82nd minute with a relative mis-hit from Di Maria's assist.

Luis Enrique explained his reason for not signing a new contract as Spain coach is so that it is easy for him to depart if La Roja disappoint at the World Cup.

The 51-year-old former Barcelona player and coach returned for his second stint in charge of Spain's senior side in November 2019.

Five months earlier, he had stepped down for "family reasons" that were later confirmed to relate to his young daughter suffering with cancer. She died in August 2019.

When Luis Enrique made his return to the Spain setup, he only signed a three-year contract that would keep him in charge until the end of the 2022 World Cup.

Since then, he has led Spain to Qatar 2022 and presided over La Roja's run to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, impressing neutrals throughout the tournament.

However, despite what has been a largely positive spell at the helm, there remains a degree of doubt over Luis Enrique's future, which he was refreshingly honest about.

Asked why he had not yet signed a new contract beyond the World Cup, Luis Enrique – who has recently been linked with Manchester United – said: "I'm in heaven.

"Not renewing, I've done it for you [the media]. As I'm not going to have a contract [after the World Cup], if things go wrong in the World Cup, you won't have to ask me to be fired any more."

But his amusingly frank response was qualified by an insistence that there is no issue between himself and either Luis Rubiales or Jose Molina, respectively the Royal Spanish Football Federation's (RFEF) president and sporting director.

"I feel super supported by both the president and Molina," Luis Enrique continued. "They signed me not once but twice.

"In the circumstances in which I came back, I will never forget it. I am going to fulfil my commitment, which is until after the World Cup."

Spain's preparations ahead of the World Cup continue with a friendly against Albania on Saturday at Espanyol's RCDE Stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, near Barcelona.

It will be Spain's first match in Catalonia for 18 years, having last played in the region in February 2004 for a friendly with Peru at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium.

La Roja and Catalonia have had a rocky relationship over the years, but Luis Enrique is excited for such a momentous occasion.

He said: "It's going to be a party. I hope we're at that level. Eighteen years is a long time... We already know the circumstances surrounding this type of occasion, but we face it with great enthusiasm.

"I took it for granted that [the stadium] was going to be full. The last time I played [for a Spain team] in Barcelona, it was the final of the [1992] Olympics and it was full.

"It was one of the best matches of my life for the gold medal. I have no doubts, I hope we can do it, turn it into a party."

Roberto Mancini will be searching for answers after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup, and his mother has helpfully provided one: Mario Balotelli should have been called up.

Speaking on Rai Radio 1 on Friday, Marianna Puolo said Mancini's Azzurri would have benefited from Balotelli's power, and his inclusion could have staved off what played out in Palermo, where Italy lost 1-0 to North Macedonia.

Balotelli, a one-time teenage wonder who now plays for Adana Demirspor in Turkey's Super Lig, has long been a favourite with Mancini, dating back to their time together as player and coach at Inter and Manchester City.

Now 31, Balotelli earned a recall for an Italy training camp at the beginning of this year. He had not been capped by Italy since head coach Mancini played him three times in 2018, which followed a four-year absence from the national team.

There was no room for Balotelli in Italy's squad for the World Cup play-offs, however, and the semi-final defeat to North Macedonia means the four-time champions will miss this year's finals in Qatar, just as they were absent in Russia four years ago.

"We had the game in our hand, but the attack was not great," said Mancini's mother.

"What would I have done different? I would have called Balotelli, because he has incredible physical strength and nobody stops him in front of goal.

"Sometimes he does stupid things, but I would have called him."

Italy had 32 shots but could not find a goal against North Macedonia, who had four and hit the back of Gianluigi Donnarumma's net in stoppage time, breaking Italian hearts.

Puolo agreed with her son's post-match verdict that it would go down at the biggest disappointment of his career.

"Yes, because in his career he has more or less always done well," she said. "I heard him this morning, he was sorry, but we know that these things happen in sport."

Jorginho's 90th-minute missed penalty at 1-1 against Switzerland in Italy's penultimate group-stage qualifier ultimately proved highly costly. Had he tucked it away, Italy would have likely not needed a play-off.

Chelsea midfielder Jorginho also missed from the spot in the first game against Switzerland, which finished as a draw, too.

Mancini's mother gave her verdict on Jorginho, saying: "Of course he didn't do it on purpose, poor thing, but if you miss two or three penalties, in the end, you pay for it."

Fabio Capello believes Italy's failure to qualify for back-to-back World Cups is due to a national obsession with following Pep Guardiola's Barcelona blueprint.

Former Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus and Roma boss Capello claims Italian football should have been following the German 'heavy metal' model rather than copying the more intricate noodling of the Spanish style of play.

Capello, who also coached Russia and England, cannot see why Italy would go against their great strengths by trying to match the high technical levels of Spain.

He told Sky Sport Italia: "The explanation is very simple. I have been saying for a long time that we are copying Guardiola's football of 15 years ago."

The 75-year-old Capello said this meant "all sideways passing, no verticality, little physical strength".

Guardiola built a Barcelona team on a possession-based game that was full of nuance, with players drilled to understand and adhere to its intricacies, and they became arguably the greatest club side of all time.

Capello does not see Italian players having the skill set to follow such a formula for success.

"Instead we should follow Klopp's model, a German-style football," Capello said.

Italy won the delayed Euro 2020 tournament last year, beating England on penalties in the Wembley final, but a 1-0 play-off semi-final defeat to North Macedonia on Thursday knocked them out of contention to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.

Roberto Mancini's team had 564 passes to 309 by North Macedonia, owning 65.4 per cent of possession, and led the shot count 32-4, only to be stunned by a stoppage-time goal from the visitors in Palermo.

The Azzurri will be spectators from a distance for the tournament in November and December, having also missed out on the Russia 2018 finals.

"Macedonia on a physical level were superior to us in terms of dynamism, strength and determination," Capello said. "It is all clear: until we understand that the model to be copied is the German one, we will not move forward, because if we want to do it like the Spaniards, who have a superior technique, we will never be able to do it, we always do it at 50 per cent."

Capello said the Italian team to take heed of the German example were Atalanta, whose results showed it had benefits. They sit fifth in Serie A, having finished third last season, and are through to the Europa League quarter-finals.

"In Europe we play at a different pace, and we are not used to it," Capello said. "At the base there is this wrong idea of ​​football. We are the country of passing back to the goalkeeper."

England manager Gareth Southgate said Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup shows how well his team have done since their agonising Euro 2020 final defeat.

The Azzurri were shocked by North Macedonia in the play-off semi-final on Thursday, losing 1-0 in Palermo to a stoppage time goal from Aleksandar Trajkovski, and will now miss their second consecutive World Cup.

Southgate suffered at the hands of Italy last year as he saw his Three Lions team beaten on penalties at Wembley in the final of Euro 2020, but while Roberto Mancini's team were unable to book their place in Qatar, England eased through their group, winning five and drawing two of their World Cup qualifiers since losing to the Azzurri.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Saturday's friendly against Switzerland, Southgate said: "It was a big surprise [Italy losing]. It's clear that sometimes teams have a cycle. Whether that was the cycle or the after effects of the [Euro 2020] final and the emotion of it and everything else.

"I think that's where our players did so well, to recover from the emotion of the final and to perform as they did in the autumn was absolutely fantastic. I think qualifying is [easily underestimated], so I suspect looking at the results and performances, the way they went, Italy were in that position."

Jordan Henderson joined Southgate in front of the media, and also refused to celebrate the Italians' misfortune, saying when asked if the result made him smile: "Not really, to be honest. I'm just concentrated on what we need to do and teams that will be in the World Cup.

"I think what that does show is how difficult qualification can be. I think sometimes that's taken for granted and it's expected that you qualify for a World Cup or a Euros, so [Italy's loss is] proof that if you're not 100 per cent at it, you can be punished."

Southgate also revealed that the three debutants called up to his latest squad, Kyle Walker-Peters, Tyrick Mitchell and Marc Guehi, are likely to get minutes against either Switzerland or the Ivory Coast in the next week.

"Emile [Smith Rowe] didn't train today, so I would think unlikely he'll be involved tomorrow," he said. "Raheem [Sterling] is absolutely fine, it was a shame to lose Bukayo [Saka, following a COVID-19 test].

"We're going to have debuts this week for sure, whether it's tomorrow or Tuesday."

England manager Gareth Southgate appeared to dismiss the idea of the Three Lions boycotting the Qatar World Cup as a form of protest.

Qatar's poor human rights record has been a concern during the build-up to the 2022 finals, and England captain Harry Kane revealed on Wednesday that he and his fellow senior players are looking to do something to help raise awareness of these and other issues around the tournament.

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

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

Speaking ahead of Saturday's friendly against Switzerland, Southgate was asked if boycotting the tournament was an option being considered.

"I don't really know what that achieves. It would be a big story but the tournament would still go ahead," he said.

"I think as soon as we have entered the tournament, that is the point you decide. We've known for years [that it would be held in Qatar]. Is the stance against Qatar as a country or the specific issue? If it is Qatar as a country, then we are intertwined with other issues like we have seen with Russia with all sorts of investment in our country.

"Are we all going to stop shopping at Sainsbury's as a protest against Qatar? We are in such a complex world with deals as we have seen in Saudi Arabia recently. On the one hand, people are talking about the investment in Newcastle, on the other we are going asking them to reduce oil prices so we can get our petrol cheaper.

"I think we are all observing and thinking this is really difficult. This is complicated. I know the issues themselves aren't but the repercussions and diplomatic relations are extremely complicated.

"It is possible [boycotting], but I don't think that is a decision myself and the players can make.

"My understanding is that the discussions that the FA has had with organisations like Amnesty International, is that they feel there would be more change if we go and these things are highlighted so that is guiding the thinking."

Southgate was joined at the news conference by Jordan Henderson, who revealed the players have been briefed on the issues around Qatar during this training camp.

"I'd reiterate what Harry said about it the other day, I think he spoke very well," the Liverpool midfielder said when asked about human rights issues. "We've been briefed this week, which is really important, on the issues that are currently happening there and have happened over the last few years.

"We're digesting that [as a team], coming up with ideas of what we want to do going forward. It's an opportunity to shine a light on issues and how we can make changes for the better.

"We don't want to rush into things... we'll continue to speak and come up with something we want to do as a team."

Ilkay Gundogan has revealed the personal torment he feels over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, detailing a close family connection to the war-torn country.

Manchester City and Germany star Gundogan explained in an interview with German magazine Kicker that his brother's wife is Ukrainian.

Gundogan says he has found himself lost for words over the crisis, which has lasted over a month, and says he would value peace in Ukraine over anything football might bring him.

The 31-year-old is chasing a Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble with City, and with Germany he hopes to be pushing for World Cup glory in November and December.

At club level, Gundogan is a team-mate of Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Zinchenko, and he tries to summon the right words to support a player who has been in despair while missiles strike his homeland and Russian tanks enter cities.

"It's so hard to deal with. We try to support him," Gundogan said of Zinchenko.

"My brother's wife is also Ukrainian, therefore the war also affects my family directly. We spoke on the phone the other day, but I couldn't find the words.

"You offer any help, but there is no template for how to properly deal with this terrible situation."

Asked whether the prospect of a treble was blighted by concerns over war, Gundogan said: "Definitely. As beautiful as football is and as much joy as it brings us, there is nothing more important than health and peace."

Gundogan repeated a recent message that he would be keen to stay at City beyond the end of his current contract, which expires next year.

"I'm very happy at Manchester City, football-wise there isn't a more attractive place at the moment," he said. "I can imagine staying there beyond 2023. There are no concrete talks, but we have a good relationship. I'm still patient. There's no hurry."

Gundogan is on Germany duty at present, with a friendly against Israel coming up on Saturday.

Whether midfielder Gundogan plays on for Hansi Flick's Germany beyond the World Cup remains to be seen.

He will turn 32 in October and will be nudging towards 34 by the time Germany host the next European Championship in 2024.

"If the mind and body allow it, the European Championship can be a topic," he said. "I'll decide after the World Cup."

Italy's humiliating failure to qualify for the World Cup means "profound change" must follow the sorrow, according to Serie A president Lorenzo Casini.

A stunning 1-0 defeat to North Macedonia in Thursday's play-off semi-final in Palermo has left Italy knowing they will miss consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history.

The Azzurri will be absent at Qatar 2022, just as they played no part in Russia 2018, and there will be a process whereby some are likely to be held to account over such a dire outcome for the four-time winners.

Elation at triumphing at Euro 2020 has been replaced by suspicions that was a flicker of rude health amid serious worries over the health of the Italian game.

Casini said on Friday: "Failure to qualify for the final phase of the World Cup is a failure for the whole of Italian football, which must lead everyone to serious reflection and a profound change in our system.

"Right now I am only experiencing the great disappointment of all the fans. I am very sorry when I think of the girls and boys who are still waiting to see Italy at the World Cup and who must be able to continue growing in the blue dream.

"Serie A clubs and their players have always responded positively to the call of the national team and always will, also because it is about the sporting commitment that unites the country and should always make us overcome every allegiance and every division. The national team belongs to everyone."

Roberto Mancini was backed to stay on as head coach by Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina in the immediate aftermath of Italy's defeat.

Gravina wanted the previous round of Serie A fixtures to be postponed to give Italy more time to prepare for the game, but his request was denied by the league. 

"I'm sorry the boys only met for one day to prepare for the game," Gravina said after Thursday's game. "It doesn't help, but I don't want to cause a controversy."

Mexico and the United States shared the points in a tense 0-0 draw in Thursday's CONCACAF World Cup qualifier in Mexico City.

A victory for either side would have put them on the brink of qualification, but both will need to wait, with the result leaving United States and Mexico in second and third positions respectively with two matches remaining.

Costa Rica moved into fourth spot after their 1-0 win over CONCACAF leaders Canada - who missed out on sealing their spot for Qatar - with the Ticos now three points behind US and Mexico who are locked on 22 points.

In a game where Mexico had a lion's share of possession, it was the Americans creating the best of the chances, with Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa looking spry at 36 years young.

Ochoa was called upon in the 14th minute to deny Yunus Musah, and again in the 36th minute to thwart Christian Pulisic to keep things deadlocked heading into half-time.

Pulisic had another chance just minutes into the second half, but his sharp chance was kept out by Ochoa as he finished the match with four saves. Hirving Lozano had a pair of chances for Mexico in the second half, but sent one over in the 57th minute, and one into the crossbar in the 80th minute.

US's final game away to Costa Rica on Wednesday is shaping up to have plenty on the line. The top three CONCACAF qualifiers will move on to the World Cup, while fourth-placed side will need to go through a play-off.

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