World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (219)

Ukraine's hopes of reaching the World Cup will be decided in early June after new dates were confirmed for the postponed play-off games.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine meant the original plan to play Scotland in March was shelved and the knock-on effect was that Wales have also been kept waiting.

To reach the finals in Qatar, Ukraine must win away to Scotland on Wednesday, June 1, before coming out on top in another away game against Wales on June 5.

Wales secured their place in the final round of the play-offs with a 2-1 victory against Austria on March 24, which had been the original date for the Scotland-Ukraine fixture.

The winner of the final European play-off will go into a World Cup group alongside England, Iran and the United States.

UEFA announced the new play-off dates on Thursday, as well as explaining how its Nations League opening fixtures, also set for the June international window, would be rearranged to allow for Ukraine, Wales and Scotland to fulfil their World Cup commitments.

European football's governing body said it had held "extensive discussions" with eight national associations who would be affected by the World Cup games being switched to the intended Nations League dates and said there had been "a remarkable spirit of solidarity and cooperation" in negotiating an updated schedule.

Wales were due to play Poland in the Nations League on June 3, but that game has been switched to June 1, meaning Rob Page's team will have a competitive game in the build-up to facing either Scotland or Ukraine.

Scotland had been due to play Ukraine in the Nations League on June 7, but that game has been shunted back to September 21, with both teams then due to play three games in seven days.


Nations League group A4 and B1 games affected by World Cup play-offs, with new dates:

June 1: A4 - Poland v Wales
June 4: B1 - Armenia v Republic of Ireland
June 8: A4 - Belgium v Poland, Wales v Netherlands; Scotland v Armenia, Republic of Ireland v Ukraine
June 11: A4 - Netherlands v Poland, Wales v Belgium
June 14: A4 - Netherlands v Wales, Poland v Belgium
September 21: B1 - Scotland v Ukraine
September 24: B1 - Scotland v Republic of Ireland, Armenia v Ukraine
September 27: B1 - Republic of Ireland v Armenia, Ukraine v Scotland

Russia has withdrawn its appeal against a ban for its teams from FIFA competitions after World Cup qualifying continued without its senior men's national team.

Russian teams were suspended from FIFA and UEFA competitions following the country's invasion of Ukraine.

The FIFA sanction meant Valeri Karpin's Russia could not compete in their scheduled World Cup play-off semi-final against Poland.

The Russian Football Union (RFU) asked for the ban to be delayed, with that match set for late March, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected its request.

It meant Poland progressed to a final against Sweden, who had defeated the Czech Republic. Poland won to advance to Qatar 2022.

With that tie settled and Poland drawn into a World Cup group alongside Argentina, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, CAS announced on Tuesday the RFU had withdrawn its appeal last week.

Russia's challenges of various bans – including from UEFA – appear set to continue, however.

Ukraine midfielder Taras Stepanenko wants their World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final against Scotland to be postponed again.

Scotland and Ukraine were meant to meet last month, but FIFA delayed the match until June due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As such, Wales – who beat Austria 2-1 in their play-off semi – are yet to find out which team they will face for a place at the Qatar World Cup in November.

Wales, Scotland and Ukraine all know which group they will be in should they progress, however, with the winner of the play-off path having been drawn alongside England, Iran and the United States in Group B.

But with no sign of the conflict in Ukraine ceasing, Stepanenko, who has played 69 times for his country, has called on FIFA to delay the match with Scotland again. 

The Shakhtar Donetsk man, who last played a match in December, told The Sunday Times: "We don't want to be known as victims here. We are strong and capable guys, everyone is fine, and we can play 100 per cent.

"But the question I would ask is how can we play such an important game when you haven't played a match for such a long time?

"Every football player knows that if you recover from an injury for a long time, no matter how much you work out in the gym and do running, you go out to play football and everything is different.

"The level and strength may not be enough with one match, but we will be asked to play two incredibly tough matches in maybe four days to get to the World Cup. If there is no option, then we must play.

"But I think it would be extremely difficult to achieve two positive results. We are hoping FIFA and UEFA recognise this and postpone the matches to give us more time to prepare."

Speaking after the World Cup draw was made in Doha on Friday, both England manager Gareth Southgate and USA coach Gregg Berhalter stressed they were not concerned by how long it might take for the final team in their group to be confirmed, given the extraordinary circumstances.

"When that tie is played out is irrelevant really," said Southgate, while Berhalter added: "We're patient on that and pulling for [Ukraine] 100 per cent."

Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale will wait until after Wales' World Cup qualifying play-off final in June before deciding on his future, agent Jonathan Barnett has said.

Bale is out of contract at the Santiago Bernabeu at the end of the season and is widely expected to depart after spending nine years in the Spanish capital.

The 32-year-old has won 14 trophies during his time with Madrid, including four Champions Leagues, but he has been accused of often prioritising Wales over his club side.

Indeed, Bale has played in just five of Los Blancos' 42 matches in all competitions this term, totalling 270 minutes on the field – the equivalent of just three games.

Bale has played over 330 minutes for Wales this season, however, scoring five goals across six matches.

While the former Tottenham star's future is a hot topic of debate, he has yet to decide on his future at club level beyond the end of the season.

"We have not discussed anything yet," agent Barnett told BBC Sport. "Once we know Wales' situation with the World Cup, we will discuss it then."

 

Bale scored twice in Wales' 2-1 win over Austria in last week's qualifying play-off semi-final, leaving his country one game away from a first World Cup appearance since 1958.

That took his tally in a Wales shirt to 38 goals in 102 caps, making him his country's record goalscorer, while only Chris Gunter (107) has earned more caps.

The Dragons will now face either Scotland or Ukraine in a one-legged final at Cardiff City Stadium, with that fixture expected to be staged in June.

At club level, Bale's relationship with Madrid supporters and the Spanish press has continued to deteriorate after being labelled a "parasite" by daily sports newspaper Marca.

A third spell with Tottenham has been mooted once Bale departs Madrid, while a switch to MLS is also reportedly a possibility, as is a move to home club Cardiff City.

Jack Grealish is in awe of England team-mate Jude Bellingham, labelling his abilities as "scary" for one so young.

Bellingham played the full 90 minutes as the Three Lions beat 10-man Ivory Coast 3-0 at Wembley on Tuesday, catching the eye as he featured in an advanced role ahead of James Ward-Prowse and Declan Rice.

It was Bellingham's 12th senior cap, with England winning every single match he has played in – only Theo Walcott (14 matches) has enjoyed a longer winning start to his Three Lions career than the Borussia Dortmund midfielder.

Bellingham is in his second season in the Bundesliga with Dortmund and has already established himself as a key player, making 25 league starts from a possible 27.

Links to other major European clubs have been frequent for the youngster, and Grealish could not hide the admiration he holds for his fellow West Midlands-native after a mature performance.

Asked if he had ever played alongside a teenager as good as Bellingham, Grealish told reporters: "I haven't actually. It is scary how good he is at 18.

"He is just so mature. He is built like he is my age at 26. He has so much technical ability and he is mature for his age.

"I can tell you one thing, I was nowhere near as good at 18. I was at Notts County [on loan from Aston Villa] and I was a scrawny little thing as well.

"You see talented 18 or 19-year-old kids but not many are that mature as he is on the pitch. He is so versatile and can play in many different positions on the pitch.

"He can be a six, eight or a 10. It was good to play with him and I think it was my first time playing with him. It is nice to play with a fellow Brummie."

Cristiano Ronaldo claimed Portugal are in their "rightful place" after Fernando Santos' team secured their place at the 2022 World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes scored both goals in a 2-0 win over North Macedonia in Porto on Tuesday, ensuring Portugal's run of qualifying for every World Cup since the turn of the century continued.

Portugal had to get through two play-off games to reach Qatar after finishing behind Serbia in their qualification group, but it does mean Italy are the only true European footballing heavyweight that will not be featuring in the tournament later this year.

Barring injury, Manchester United forward Ronaldo will be featuring at his fifth World Cup, equalling the record shared by Antonio Carbajal, Rafael Marquez, Lothar Matthaus and Gianluigi Buffon, albeit the latter did not actually play in the 1998 tournament despite making Italy's squad.

"Goal achieved, we are at the Qatar World Cup, we are in our rightful place!" Ronaldo wrote in a post on his official Instagram account shortly after the match.

"Thank you to all the Portuguese for your tireless support! Go Portugal!"

Ronaldo teed up Fernandes' opener in the 32nd minute, with the 37-year-old's club-mate then slotting in from Diogo Jota's cross midway through the second half to all but wrap up the win.

"It doesn't matter at all. It's important to help the team, I'm not here to score goals," Fernandes told reporters when asked about his own performance.

"If I can score, I'd be happy to. That's what I did today. Then it's up to everyone to give their criticism and opinion.

"But I keep my mind on the coach's ideas, and that's probably why I've had this double, for doing what the coach asks of me."

On qualifying, Fernandes added: "It will be in a special place, obviously. The objective has been achieved, which is the most important thing.

"I think Portugal has played better, we've had better performances, but this game made a difference because it qualified us."

Robert Lewandowski's successful penalty was "one of the heaviest" of his life as he helped Poland book their place in the World Cup finals.

The skipper was on target as the Poles beat Sweden 2-0 in the playoff final to seal their spot in Qatar.

Lewandowski broke the deadlock four minutes into the second half in Chorzow after Jesper Karlstrom fouled Grzegorz Krychowiak in the box.

Piotr Zielinski sealed the deal when he slotted past Robin Olsen 18 minutes from time to secure the Eagles' ninth appearance in the finals.

Lewandowski led the wild post-match celebrations at the Silesian Stadium, but the Bayern Munich forward admitted he felt the pressure when he stepped up for the decisive spot-kick.

He told TVP Sport: "It was a special match; we knew what we were playing for. It is known that this situation around was an additional burden, but in our stadium, it was easier. 

"After the goal, it was clear that the Swedes had a desire. We played well defensively. There is potential to create even more situations, but let's appreciate this qualification and mentally prepare for the World Cup.

"It was one of the heaviest penalties of my life. I was aware of the pressure. I wanted to focus on the execution, but I knew what the game was about. 

"There was great euphoria after the penalty, because I knew it would be a key step [towards qualification]. Then, [Zielinski] scored a goal, and it worked out."

Pepe declared Portugal have the quality to become world champions but admitted he was uncertain about his own prospects of playing at Qatar 2022.

Fernando Santos' team clinched their place at the finals with a 2-0 play-off win over North Macedonia in Porto on Tuesday.

Bruno Fernandes got both of the goals for the Euro 2016 champions, who beat Turkey in their previous play-off match.

It means Cristiano Ronaldo is set to feature at a record-equalling fifth World Cup, though fellow veteran campaigner Pepe is not quite so sure of his place.

While that does not seem likely to be down to coach Santos, with 39-year-old Pepe still a mainstay of his defence, the former Real Madrid centre-back insisted that now his focus is on helping Porto, rather than thinking about the showpiece that starts in November.

"I still don't know, there's still a lot of time," Pepe told reporters.

"Now I have to focus on my club's games. I didn't want to mix things up, but I know that at this age I have to think game by game. Obviously I want to help Portugal.

"I'm very happy to do what I like to do, play football, I try to pass on this desire of mine to enjoy every second and moment in football, because it passes very fast. I am 39, but I still have the same illusion of a kid of 15, 18, 20 years old. I try to make [my team-mates] feel this happiness because we are privileged."

Pepe played a crucial role in Portugal's second goal against North Macedonia, making a fine tackle deep in his own half to start the counter-attack that resulted in Fernandes steering home Diogo Jota's cross.

Portugal were ultimately comfortable winners, having 11 attempts and restricting their opponents to just three going the other way, with none of those hitting the target.

Yet the fact they were even in this play-off in the first place, and could well have been facing European champions Italy if not for North Macedonia's shock win over the Azzurri last week, points to a sense of underachievement.

Pepe, though, feels Portugal have all the tools to succeed in Qatar.

"We have a lot of quality, we know that for this feat we have to work hard and be very strong mentally, be a humble and warrior team, which we were many times in the period in which we won the Euros and the Nations League," he said.

"We have players with a big future, who play in big clubs in Europe. I believe we have the capacity to be world champions, but we'll take it easy, prepare well, so we can be at our level.

"It was an emotional night, the atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic, we felt that positive energy from everyone. I feel privileged to be part of this group, to be able to live this wonderful night.

"It [would be] a huge injustice not to be at the World Cup, the way we work, the way we dedicate ourselves, the criticism we receive. We proved to be a humble team."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is keen to keep his international career alive despite Sweden missing out on qualification for the 2022 World Cup. 

Sweden went down 2-0 to Poland in their qualifying play-off final, with Robert Lewandowski converting a penalty after Jesper Karlstrom's foul on Grzegorz Krychowiak and Piotr Zielinski's cool finish completing the success in Chorzow. 

Ibrahimovic retired from international duty after Euro 2016 but returned to the fold last year to help in Sweden's quest to reach Qatar. 

The 40-year-old is his country's all-time leading scorer with 62 goals to his name but he has failed to find the net in five appearances since making his comeback.

He was only a late substitute in the defeat against Poland yet has no intention of stepping away from the international set-up again. 

"I hope so. As long as I can stay healthy and play and contribute something," Ibrahimovic told C More said when asked if he would continue playing for Sweden.

Pushed to confirm he did not view the defeat to Poland as his last match, he replied: "There is no answer now. 

"Everyone is disappointed. It's depressing, but it's normal when you lose. Everyone wants to play [at] the World Cup and experience a World Cup, but unfortunately that won't happen." 

 

Sweden boss Janne Andersson believes a fit Ibrahimovic will continue to be of use.

"If it's the case that Zlatan wants to be involved and he's completely healthy – because he has to be, he has to play because otherwise it will be difficult – then he definitely has something to add still," said Andersson. 

Injuries have limited Ibrahimovic to just 918 minutes of game time in Serie A for Milan this season, with the striker scoring eight times.

Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zielinski sent Poland to a 2-0 play-off victory over Sweden, sealing World Cup qualification.

Bayern Munich star Lewandowski beat Robin Olsen from the penalty spot before Zielinksi produced a composed finish to secure the hosts' spot in Qatar as Zlatan Ibrahimovic's hopes of appearing at what would surely have been a final World Cup were dashed.

Sweden offered promise in the first half. Emil Forsberg placed an early shot too close to Wojciech Szczesny and Jan Bednarek blocked Dejan Kulusevski's effort.

Poland managed only one attempt on target during a tame first-half performance but needed just four minutes to hit the front after the break, Lewandowski rolling home from 12 yards after Jesper Karlstrom clumsily felled Grzegorz Krychowiak.

Szczesny made a stunning close-range save to again deny Forsberg, but Zielinski wrapped up the win when he robbed Marcus Danielson and slotted in after 72 minutes, sparking wild scenes of celebration in Chorzow.

Ibrahimovic came on with 11 minutes remaining but only had three touches as Sweden missed out on a World Cup for the third time out of the last four tournaments.

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