World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (225)

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.

Portugal sealed their place at the 2022 World Cup as Bruno Fernandes double secured a 2-0 win over North Macedonia.

Fresh from their shock defeat of Italy, North Macedonia headed to Porto with another giant killing in their sights, but it is Cristiano Ronaldo and company who will feature in Qatar.

Whereas North Macedonia had kept things tight and took their chance when it came in Palermo last week, a costly mistake from Stefan Ristovski saw them fell behind this time around.

Fernandes took full advantage, opening the scoring in the 32nd minute before doubling his tally after finishing a counter-attack he helped start with a fine 65th-minute half volley to ensure Portugal kept up their record of qualifying for every World Cup since the turn of the century.

Portugal's first opportunity seemed set to result in a goal when Ronaldo burst onto Otavio's pass in the 14th minute, only to drag wide when one-on-one with Stole Dimitrievski.

North Macedonia had otherwise kept Portugal at arm's length, yet Diogo Jota should have done better when he headed over the bar from Fernandes' corner.

It was a mistake, though, that gifted Portugal the lead. Fernandes pounced on Ristovski's poor pass and, having received a neat pass back from Ronaldo, picked out the bottom-left corner.

Jota sliced a close-range effort wide as a chance for 2-0 went begging before half-time, but Fernandes made no such mistake after the hour.

Pepe's superb tackle prevented a North Macedonia attack and started a rapid counter, with Fernandes beating the offside trap to steer in brilliantly from Jota's cross.

That settled any nerves in the crowd, with Fernando Santos' team able to relax as their prolonged qualification quest proved successful.

The only downside for the fans was two late chances going amiss for Ronaldo, who just failed to turn home a Fernandes cross before his path to goal was blocked following an excellent run from Rafael Leao.

 

What does it mean? Heavyweights book their spot

The draw for Path C of the UEFA qualification play-offs always ensured that at least one giant of European football – and, indeed, one of the previous two Euro winners – would miss out on a place in Qatar.

The likes of Germany, England, Spain, France and the other European nations to already have qualified will have been thrilled to see Italy crash out to North Macedonia, but lightning never looked likely to strike twice for the minnows, who can at least reflect on that famous win over the Azzurri. 

Ronaldo set to match World Cup record

Barring missing out through injury, Ronaldo will feature in a fifth World Cup, which equals the record currently 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.

At 37, this will surely be Ronaldo's final chance to become a world champion on the international stage.

Minnows just don't have enough

Ristovski's error did, of course, prove extremely costly, but ultimately North Macedonia did just not have the guile or quality in attack to frighten Portugal.

In fact, they managed just three shots, with none of them testing home goalkeeper Diogo Costa.

What's next?

Portugal face neighbouring Spain in the Nations League in June, while North Macedonia go up against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia have already pulled off perhaps the greatest shock in World Cup qualifying history, so they are entering Tuesday's play-off against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal with no fear.

An incredible qualification campaign – in which they won away in Germany in Group J – continued for North Macedonia when they defeated Italy in last week's play-off semi-final.

That set up yet another away trip against an elite side, with the relative minnows now visiting Portugal for a place at Qatar 2022.

As Selecao talisman Ronaldo, now 37, is potentially bidding to play at his last World Cup – although he insists he will make that call – there is far more pressure on the hosts than on North Macedonia.

Coach Blagoja Milevski explained: "I don't think anyone would ever have expected that North Macedonia, as a country, as a national team, [would make it this far].

"Compared to the other participants in our group in this play-off, we are very small and that's why nobody expected North Macedonia to be in this position of being able to play in the final of this play-off and go to the World Cup.

"So, let's not run away from this opportunity. We are in a good position and I have only one message: to enjoy the moment and make the most of this opportunity to play against a great team."

Milevski knows Portugal are still the favourites, but that does not concern him.

"Of course we know who the favourites are. We know that according to everything that has happened, Portugal are the favourites," he said.

"But North Macedonia are not here by coincidence, we have our qualities and it was precisely these qualities that put us in the group of the best 20 at the European level. And so I think we have to see what happens."

Portugal required a play-off to qualify in both 2010 and 2014 – the latter seeing Ronaldo score all four goals of a 4-2 aggregate win over Sweden.

Those goals contribute to a world-record international tally of 115, but Milevski suggests North Macedonia cannot afford to focus on Ronaldo alone.

"Regarding Cristiano Ronaldo, I think we are talking about someone who has been the best player in the world for several years," the coach said.

"But we will not just play against him. There are 10 other players who play with him. Portugal is not just Ronaldo.

"Although he is sensational, there are other extraordinary players. And therefore, we will focus on the team as a whole and not just on an individual."

Leonardo Bonucci has confirmed he will not retire from international football, while backing Roberto Mancini after Italy failed to qualify for a second straight World Cup.

Bonucci was part of Mancini's Azzurri side that responded to not making the 2018 World Cup in Russia by winning Euro 2020 late in July last year.

Italy also embarked on a world-record 37-game unbeaten run, which came to an end against Spain in the Nations League semi-final in October, as they aimed to reach Qatar 2022.

However, Mancini's team could not top their World Cup qualifying group and succumbed to a late 1-0 loss against North Macedonia as Aleksandar Trajkovski delivered the decisive strike in the play-off semi-final on Thursday.

That led to speculation over Mancini's tenure and doubts over whether the national team's senior players would continue into the twilight of their careers, but Bonucci has committed his future to Italy.

"I don't know what Giorgio [Chiellini] will do. On my end, I want to continue to be an example and guide the younger players coming through wearing this shirt," he said at a news conference on Monday.

"The hours after the elimination was tough. We remained quiet during our moments together, like team lunches or dinners. We tried to play down the disappointment by saying that young players will have other opportunities.

"After the coach spoke to us, we put the past behind us and looked to the future. The future is now so we must start to rebuild and get what we didn't achieve. We have a solid base to come back."

Italian Football Federation president Gabriele Gravina has suggested he would like Mancini to remain in charge, and Bonucci echoed his sentiments as he praised his manager.

"What the coach has given us in these three years is something unique," he continued. "There is an empathy that is rare to see at Coverciano [Italy's headquarters], continuing with Mancini is the only logical decision.

"His ideas and values are not under question. Anything can happen in a game and opinions can change, but we have been with him every day and want to continue it."

Hansi Flick expects a strong performance from his Germany team against the Netherlands, as he assesses his side's prospects ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Germany travel to Amsterdam to face their historic rivals in on Tuesday, following Saturday's routine 2-0 win over Israel.

The Oranje, who have won their last 11 games on Dutch soil, should represent a sturdier test, with Flick seeking to build towards a major tournament revival after Germany's failing to make the 2018 World Cup and then underwhelming at Euro 2020.

The former Bayern Munich coach is anticipating a tough contest against Louis van Gaal's side, and is expected to name a strong team after announcing that he wants to win the game "at all costs".

"It will be a good indicator for us," Flick told a pre-match press conference.

"We want to put in a good team performance, try and put our opponents under pressure, force them into mistakes and play our own game.

"I want to win the game at all costs."

Flick will be able to include goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and defender Antonio Rudiger among his starting XI, though he was giving nothing else away.

"All of the players here are available to play," Flick added. "We're very much looking forward to testing ourselves against the Netherlands.

"Neuer and Rudiger will both start.

"Everything else we'll decide in due course, but we will have an incredibly well-prepared team out on the pitch."

Roberto Mancini suggested he is likely to continue as Italy head coach despite the Azzurri missing out on a second straight World Cup.

Italy responded to failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia by winning Euro 2020 on penalties against England in late July last year, their first European Championship since 1968.

The Azzurri also embarked on a world record 37-game unbeaten run, which ended at the hands of Spain in the Nations League semi-final in October, as they looked to make Qatar 2022.

However, Mancini's side failed to top their World Cup qualifying group and could not get past North Macedonia on Thursday in the play-off semi-final as they fell to a late 1-0 loss in Palermo.

That led to speculation over the future of the former Manchester City boss, but Italian Football Federation president Gabriele Gravina assured he would like Mancini to stay at the helm.

Mancini has also reiterated his desire to remain in charge of the national side, a sentiment he echoed at Monday's pre-match news conference ahead of a third-place play-off clash with Turkey.

"I talked to Gravina; we are aligned on everything," Mancini said. "Let's think about this match, then calmly we will think about everything, to understand what to improve in the future.

He added: "There are important national teams that have not won anything for 60 years. Italy is a little further ahead in this, despite some disappointments. Sometimes we exaggerate saying that we must necessarily look for the reasons.

"Despite the great disappointment of Palermo, I am pleased that the work done in these three years has been appreciated.

"It's not just the European Championship, these players must also be given credit for the long streak of matches without defeat.

"We don't just have good players; these are special guys who have created an exceptional group. Not only in the locker room, also everything around [Italy's headquarters in] Coverciano, in the federation, here there is a perfect group that seemed ideal for me to achieve success."

Italy could have wrapped up group qualification earlier but Jorginho missed two penalties in as many matches against eventual winners Switzerland, and Mancini acknowledged his side should not have required the play-offs.

"We should have won our group with at least a two-point advantage over Switzerland," he said. "I don't want to find excuses for what's happened, we have to accept reality and move on."

A lack of younger players being involved with Italy has also brought Mancini's tenure into question, and he vowed to make changes in future to address the problems.

"We have to start over, start thinking differently," he continued. "We will include younger players in the national team, in the hope that they will have more opportunities in their respective clubs as well.

"We will start from this, then we will see what to do in a more general context."

Cristiano Ronaldo insists he will be the one to decide if the 2022 World Cup is the last of his career, as Portugal prepare for their crucial play-off with North Macedonia.

With Ronaldo turning 37 last month, there is understandable speculation around whether this year's edition of FIFA's showpiece event could represent the last to involve the Portugal captain, who has already appeared at four editions of the World Cup.

One more tournament appearance would see Ronaldo join Lothar Matthaus, Rafael Marquez, Gianluigi Buffon and Antonio Carbajal in having gone to five different finals – although Buffon did not play when he was named in the Italy squad in 1998.

Ronaldo's 115 goals in 185 Portugal appearances represent a record in men's internationals, and the Manchester United striker says only he will decide if the 2022 World Cup represents his last.

"I'm starting to see that many of you ask the same question," Ronaldo replied to reporters at Monday's pre-match press conference.

"I'm the one who's going to decide my future, nobody else. 

"If I feel like playing more games, I'll play; if I don't feel like playing more, I don't play. I'm in charge, period."

 

Portugal's nervy 3-1 win over Turkey on Thursday left them within one win of sealing qualification for Qatar 2022, and the Selecao are hot favourites to do so after North Macedonia dumped out European champions Italy to book their own place in the play-off final.

Ronaldo, while warning Portugal's opponents deserved respect, claims Fernando Santos' team "will beat any team in the world" if they play at their best level.

"We know that they are a very well organised team," the 37-year-old added. "They have their strengths. 

"We respect them, but I think that if Portugal are at the best level, they will beat any team in the world. 

"[It is the] game of our lives, too, not just for Macedonia. I hope the stadium can respond in the best way, with a very strong atmosphere throughout the 90 minutes."

Meanwhile, Coach Santos shrugged off suggestions he was pleased to face North Macedonia for a place in Qatar, rather than Italy, saying he was simply happy with his own side's result against Turkey.

"I'm not happy [not to play Italy]," the 67-year-old said. "I'm happy that Portugal beat Turkey and played a good game. It was a tough opponent, we knew we had to win. 

"We'll do everything we can to be present at the World Cup."

Portugal have not failed to qualify for a major tournament since missing out on the 1998 World Cup in France, featuring at each of the past five editions of world football's most celebrated competition.

Roberto Mancini has revealed the decision to release several senior Italy faces such as Jorginho is to help repay the efforts made between club and country.

The Chelsea midfielder, along with a clutch of other key players such as Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, have left the Azzurri camp ahead of Tuesday's clash with Turkey.

Defeat against North Macedonia last week left the Euro 2020 hopes' of reaching Qatar 2022 in tatters, ensuring they will miss a second successive World Cup.

With that in mind, Mancini looks set to field a more experimental side for a dead rubber against Turkey, who were also eliminated from the play-offs.

Speaking ahead of the match at Torku Arena, Mancini explained that it was on his orders that Jorginho and others departed early, stating that it was intended as a favour to their respective clubs.

"I forced them to leave," the manager sought to clarify in his pre-match press conference. "If I can do something for them and for the clubs, we do it.

"They would not have played. Some were not physically at their best. Some of them, I forced them to go.

"Chelsea sent us Jorginho three days earlier [and] did not let him play in the FA Cup. I sent [him] back home because [he] would not have played."

Jorginho has endured a tough few months in the Azzurri fold, with his crucial missed penalties against Switzerland in the group stage qualifiers effectively costing his side a straight passage to Qatar.

While Mancini added that neither Napoli forward Insigne or Lazio striker Immobile would have featured against Turkey, but still paid tribute to their contributions.

"Lorenzo had physical problems [and] Immobile would have gone to the stands," he stated.

"The boys in recent years have deserved a lot. There are special players here, a special group has been created."

It's almost taken for granted that the best players in football appear at the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup.

But look a little closer, and we can see that is just not the case. Every four years there are a handful of big names who miss out, usually those born to countries without the same footballing pedigree as the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain.

There are even countless greats who, down the years, have failed to register a single appearance at a World Cup finals. Either they've been something of an anomaly in terms of the quality available to their country at a given time, injury has struck, or the coach simply hasn't picked them. Alfredo di Stefano, Ryan Giggs, George Best, Eric Cantona all enjoyed illustrious careers without playing in a World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski have at least all appeared at previous editions of the tournament, so this week's qualifying climax in Europe isn't exactly the only opportunity they have to ensure they represent their respective countries on the grandest stage.

But, given their ages, it has to be considered likely that Qatar 2022 will be the last World Cup at which any of them appear.

Waiting to make their mark

Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski have, obviously, enjoyed incredible careers. At club and international level, both have titles and records practically coming out of their ears.

Lewandowski already has more caps (128) and goals (74) for Poland than anyone else ever, while Ibrahimovic is Sweden's all-time top scorer (62).

Historically, both strikers are their respective nations' most-recognisable footballers, and surely the most talented they've ever produced.

Yet, one cannot say either of them has ever caused much of a stir at a World Cup.

Of course, neither Ibrahimovic nor Lewandowski has ever played in a senior international team that would be considered a challenger for major honours – in fact, each of them has only ever featured at one World Cup.

Ibrahimovic was a part of the Sweden team that got to the last 16 of the 2006 edition, while Lewandowski made his World Cup bow four years ago in Russia.

Sweden coach Janne Andersson opted against offering Ibrahimovic a way out of international retirement ahead of the 2018 World Cup, but he did eventually return in March last year. He will be 41 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around in November.

Lewandowski will be 34, so it's by no means outside the realm of possibility that he'll make an appearance in 2026, particularly if we look at Ibrahimovic's longevity.

But there won't be room for both of them in Qatar. Tuesday's play-off final in Chorzow pits Poland and Sweden against each other for the right to secure passage to the finals and what could be a last World Cup appearance for one of these two all-time greats.

No one will be expecting Sweden or Poland to go deep into the tournament, given neither has been beyond the last eight since 1994. But it would seem a travesty if players as good as Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic never managed to score at a World Cup.

Primed for World Cup number five, unless…

While Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski are still waiting to make a memorable impact at a World Cup, Ronaldo will be featuring at a fifth assuming he and Portugal qualify.

Ronaldo first appeared at the 2006 World Cup, something few England fans will forget given his role in Wayne Rooney's sending-off during their quarter-final tussle. Portugal went on to win 3-1 on penalties after a 0-0 draw, with Ronaldo netting the decisive spot-kick.

They finished fourth that year, but in the three tournaments since, Portugal haven't got beyond the last 16.

While Portugal's success at Euro 2016 means Ronaldo should never have his international legacy questioned in future, that World Cup record must be something he is keen to improve.

Additionally, Qatar 2022 looks likely to be the last time a certain rivalry can dominate headlines in a major tournament.

Lionel Messi has already helped Argentina secure a place and, given their 30-match unbeaten run and the fact they head to Qatar as South American champions, there's every reason to expect La Albiceleste will be an entirely different proposition compared to the team at Russia 2018.

While Messi and Ronaldo have shown signs of decline this term at club level, they remain fundamental for their respective national teams – but this surely won't be the case in 2026.

Qatar 2022 should offer Ronaldo the chance to boost his World Cup goals record of seven in 17 games. While by no means poor, a player of such self-belief will surely be aiming for more.

 

Those leading the way appear out of reach, barring an utterly freak showing from Ronaldo. Miroslav Klose (16) holds the record for most World Cup goals, while the 'other/original/Brazilian' Ronaldo is just behind on 15. Then there are other greats Gerd Muller (14), Just Fontaine (13) and Pele (12).

Reaching double figures would seem a realistic target and at least put him in great company, with only 13 players reaching 10 World Cup goals in the tournament's history.

Similarly, that would also make him Portugal's most-prolific World Cup player, with Eusebio currently holding that record thanks to his nine strikes, all of which came in 1966.

Of course, it's by no means a given that Ronaldo or Portugal will make it. Up next for them on Tuesday in their play-off final are North Macedonia.

Fernando Santos' side will undoubtedly favour themselves, but North Macedonia have already shocked European champions Italy – who's to say they can't stun Portugal as well?

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.