World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (225)

Scotland remain in contact with FIFA and UEFA regarding World Cup qualifiers against Ukraine, while the Scottish FA (SFA) confirmed they will boycott fixtures with Russia amid the ongoing conflict.

Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine on Thursday, with the fighting escalating over the weekend after weeks of heightening political tensions between the two countries.

The conflict has been widely condemned, with sporting, political and financial sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus in an attempt to deter the pair from continuing with the attacks.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) urged action as they called on international sporting federations to relocate or cancel any events set to take place in Russia or Belarus.

UEFA subsequently acted by stripping St Petersburg of the 2021-22 Champions League final, while Formula One removed the Russian Grand Prix from its 2022 calendar.

A plethora of international sporting stars, including Russian tennis stars Andrey Rubley and Daniil Medvedev, have demanded peace as they condemned war.

The SFA has followed suit by offering support to Ukraine, who Scotland's men are scheduled to face in a World Cup play-off semi-final on 24 March with the women's teams set to meet on 8 April.

"The Scottish FA President, Rod Petrie, has written to his counterpart at the Ukrainian Association of Football to send a message of support, friendship, and unity," a statement from the SFA read on Monday.

"Football is inconsequential amid conflict but we have conveyed the strong sense of solidarity communicated to us by Scotland fans and citizens in recent days.

"We remain in dialogue with UEFA and FIFA regarding our men's FIFA World Cup play-off and women's World Cup qualifier and have offered to support our Ukrainian colleagues' preparations as best we can in these unimaginably difficult circumstances.

"Should the current circumstances continue, we will not sanction the nomination of a team to participate in our scheduled UEFA Regions Cup fixture against Russia, due to be played in August.

"This will remain our position should any other fixtures arise at any level of international football."

FIFA has confirmed Russia must compete in their upcoming matches as the Football Union of Russia (RFU).

The order from world football's governing body comes in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began on Thursday, with fighting having escalated over the weekend.

FIFA has been put under increasing pressure to sanction Russia, with UEFA having already stripped St Petersburg of this season's Champions League final, while the football associations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic all jointly outlined their refusal to play Russia.

This cast doubt over next month's World Cup qualifiers, with Poland set to face Russia in a play-off semi-final, with the winner of that match to play either Sweden or the Czech Republic for a place in Qatar.

On Sunday, FIFA confirmed Russia would have to play under a neutral banner of the RFU, similar to how the International Olympic Committee had the country's athletes represent the Russian Olympic Committee following a state-sponsored doping scandal.

Russia's flag cannot be displayed, nor can their anthem be played, and all of their home matches must now take place at a neutral venue, behind closed doors.

A statement read: "FIFA would like to reiterate its condemnation of the use of force by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Violence is never a solution and FIFA expresses its deepest solidarity to all people affected by what is happening in Ukraine.

"FIFA calls again for the urgent restoration of peace and for constructive dialogue to commence immediately. FIFA remains in close contact with the Ukrainian Association of Football and members of the Ukrainian football community who have been requesting support to leave the country for as long as the current conflict persists."

"With regard to the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers, FIFA has taken good note of the positions expressed via social media by the Polish Football Association, the Football Association of the Czech Republic and the Swedish Football Association and has already engaged in dialogue with all of these football associations. FIFA will remain in close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together."

However, FIFA's sanctions do not go far enough, according to Polish FA president Cezary Kulesza, who tweeted: "Today's FIFA decision is totally unacceptable.

"We are not interested in participating in this game of appearances. Our stance remains intact: Polish National Team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team is."

FIFA's sanctions followed on from the English FA confirming it would boycott any upcoming matches against Russia for the foreseeable future, at any level.

The Czech Republic have joined Poland and Sweden in refusing to play Russia ahead of next month's UEFA World Cup qualifying play-offs.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, following weeks of rising political tensions in the region. The conflict escalated further on Friday, with the fighting reaching the capital city of Kyiv. There was intense fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, on Sunday.

It was confirmed by Poland's Football Association on Saturday that they would refuse to play their scheduled 'Path B' play-off semi-final against Russia.

Russia had been set to host Poland in March, but on Friday, UEFA said any international matches due to be held in Russia or Ukraine would have to be moved to a neutral venue, as well as confirming St Petersburg had been stripped of holding this season's Champions League final, which will now be played in Paris.

That followed a request from the Polish, Swedish and Czech FAs that Russia be barred from hosting any upcoming World Cup qualifiers. The winner of the tie between Poland and Russia would have been due to play either Sweden or the Czech Republic for a place at Qatar 2022.

Despite UEFA's declaration, the power to decide where the qualifiers are played and whether Russia can remain a part of them ultimately rests with world governing body FIFA.

Announcing their boycott, Polish FA president Cezary Kulesza said the three national associations were working to find a "common position" and that has now been achieved. The Swedish FA said on Saturday it was not possible to play Russia "regardless of where the match is played" and on Sunday the Czech FA took the same stance.

A statement posted on Twitter read: "The Czech FA executive committee, staff members and players of the national team agreed it's not possible to play against the Russian national team in the current situation, not even on the neutral venue. We all want the war to end as soon as possible."

Football's world governing body FIFA previously said in a statement that it "condemns the use of force by Russia in Ukraine and any type of violence to resolve conflicts. Violence is never a solution and FIFA calls on all parties to restore peace through constructive dialogue".

It added: "FIFA also continues to express its solidarity to the people affected by this conflict.

"Regarding football matters in both Ukraine and Russia, FIFA will continue to monitor the situation and updates in relation to the upcoming FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifiers will be communicated in due course."

Mario Balotelli has been called up for a three-day Italy training camp and Joao Pedro is among the new faces given the nod by Roberto Mancini.

Balotelli has not played for his country for over three years, but the in-form striker was named among 35 players who will assemble for a camp in Coverciano from Wednesday to Friday this week.

The enigmatic 31-year-old has scored nine goals for Adana Demirspor since joining the Turkish Super Lig side in July, including three in his past four matches.

Brazil-born duo Joao Pedro and Luiz Felipe are among seven uncapped players brought in by Mancini two months before the European champions face North Macedonia in a World Cup qualifying play-off.

Marco Carnesecchi, Giorgio Scalvini, Nicolo Fagioli, Davide Frattesi and Samuele Ricci were also called up for the first time.

The Azzurri do battle with North Macedonia in a play-off semi-final at Stadio Renzo Barbera on March 24.

If they come out on top in Palermo, Italy will then face Portugal or Turkey knowing a victory will seal their place in the tournament in Qatar this year.

 

Italy training squad:

Marco Carnesecchi, Alessio Cragno, Alex Meret, Salvatore Sirigu; Alessandro Bastoni, Cristiano Biraghi, Davide Calabria, Giorgio Chiellini, Mattia De Sciglio, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Alessandro Florenzi, Luiz Felipe, Gianluca Mancini, Luca Pellegrini, Giorgio Scalvini, Rafael Toloi; Nicolo Barella, Bryan Cristante, Nicolo Fagioli, Davide Frattesi, Manuel Locatelli, Matteo Pessina, Samuele Ricci, Stefano Sensi, Sandro Tonali; Mario Balotelli, Domenico Berardi, Federico Bernardeschi, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, Joao Pedro, Giacomo Raspadori, Gianluca Scamacca, Mattia Zaccagni, Nicolo Zaniolo.

Roberto Mancini has expressed regret about Italy's failure to secure automatic World Cup qualification and warned the Azzurri must forget about their Euro 2020 success ahead of the playoffs.

Italy, who missed out on the 2018 World Cup, have undergone a transformative period under former Inter and Manchester City manager Mancini. That culminated in them triumphing at Euro 2020 – their first European Championship title since 1968.

The Azzurri embarked on a world-record 37-game unbeaten run, which ended at the hands of Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in October, but their World Cup prospects hang in the balance.

Italy finished runners-up to Switzerland in Group C, as did Portugal to Serbia in Group A. The pair were then drawn on the same play-off path, meaning there is no way that Mancini's side and Cristiano Ronaldo and co can both qualify for Qatar 2022.

Italy have to navigate past North Macedonia in the play-off semi-final in late March and Mancini wishes his side had managed to confirm qualification earlier.

He told Sky Sports Italia: "Yes, but this is football, it is sport. Sometimes you deserve to win and you don't win, we deserved to finish the group much earlier.

"We let ourselves go a bit and now we have to roll up our sleeves and do a great job in the two games. But I remain optimistic, as I knew that our group with Switzerland would be difficult. I thought we would qualify, but I knew it would be difficult."

Reflecting on Euro 2020 success, Mancini said: "We have done an extraordinary thing, we have made millions of people happy. It is the most beautiful thing, of which we are all proud.

"But the European Championship is behind us, now we have to think about something else."

The play-offs are one-leg ties, with Italy and Portugal hosting North Macedonia and Turkey in their respective semi-finals.

The winners of those two semi-finals will meet in a final, in which Portugal or Turkey will be at home, to secure a place at Qatar 2022.

If Italy can negotiate such a tricky route, Mancini believes they have players who will benefit from experiencing a World Cup.

He said: "There are many players who can improve a lot and, for me, it will be important to go to the World Cup because I think there are 10-12 players who can improve a lot going to the World Cup, if we go there."

Mario Balotelli believes he can earn a dramatic Italy recall in time for the World Cup play-offs, according to his club boss Vincenzo Montella.

The former Inter, Manchester City and Liverpool striker scored 14 goals in 36 games for the Azzurri before his international career ground to a halt in 2018.

Despite his long-time ally Roberto Mancini being head coach of the Azzurri, there has been little hint of a return to Italy duty since Mancini gave him three caps early in his reign.

Those three appearances were Balotelli's first for Italy since the 2014 World Cup, and he has not been called into a squad since September 2018, with his club career taking him in the meantime from Nice onwards to Marseille, Brescia, Monza and currently Adana Demirspor in Turkey.

Balotelli has scored five Super Lig goals this season for a team who sit eighth in the table after 16 games.

Former Roma frontman Montella, who also played for Italy, has floated the idea that there could yet be another chapter in the story of Balotelli's Azzurri career.

"Balotelli has extraordinary technical qualities. He is a good guy who sometimes goes off a little. But I found him very motivated, and I believe that in his career he has never been as concentrated as this year with us," Montella told Italia 1's Tiki Taka programme.

"He is growing a lot, it is a pleasure to coach him. He has the obsession to return to the national team. He is motivated, he believes in it, he knows he has to work hard, but he knows he has three months to convince Mancini that he knows everything about him, his strengths and weaknesses."

 

Italy won Euro 2020 just five months ago but face a battle to get to the World Cup, knowing they must beat North Macedonia on March 24 to set up a decider against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or Turkey.

This is because, despite remaining unbeaten in qualifying so far, they finished only second to Switzerland in the group stage. Italy missed out on the 2018 World Cup, so to do so for a second successive time would be a major blow.

Montella said: "Mancini has done an extraordinary job since the beginning of his Azzurri adventure and winning the European Championship was a great thing. Getting to the World Cup will be difficult but Italy, in difficulties, always manage to bring out the best of its potential. I wish and hope that we will be able to qualify."

Ellen White became England women's all-time top scorer as she netted a hat-trick in a record-breaking 20-0 demolition of Latvia in World Cup qualifying.

The Manchester City forward, making her 101st appearance for her country, equalled Kelly Smith's record of 106 goals for England after just six minutes at the Keepmoat Stadium.

White, who achieved the mark in 16 games fewer than Smith, surpassed the milestone just three minutes later before adding her third – one of four hat-tricks scored by England on Tuesday – after the interval.

The 32-year-old now has 48 goals for the Lionesses, averaging almost a goal per game, following England's record competitive win. Their 13-0 thrashing of Hungary in October 2005 was the previous biggest margin of victory.

In total England, who had hit double figures 10 times previously since the team started in 1972, had 10 different goalscorers and over their two group matches against Latvia have attempted 121 shots while facing none in return, according to Opta data.

England remain top of their World Cup qualifying group, with a perfect six wins from six games, in which they have managed 53 goals and conceded none in reply.

White is also the second-highest scorer in Women's Super League history, netting 58 times in 126 appearances for Arsenal, Notts County, Birmingham and Manchester City.

Roberto Mancini admitted Italy would rather not have to do battle with Portugal for a place in the 2022 World Cup if they get past North Macedonia.

The European champions were on Friday drawn to face North Macedonia in a semi-final next March after missing out on automatic qualification for the tournament in Qatar.

Italy will come up against either Portugal or Turkey in a decisive showdown if they avoid a semi-final upset.

Euro 2016 champions Portugal were consigned to a play-off spot in dramatic fashion as Aleksandar Mitrovic's last-gasp strike saw Serbia through as Group A winners.

Italy boss Mancini is confident his side will qualify, but gave an honest reaction to the prospect of trying to deny Cristiano Ronaldo what could be his last trip to a World Cup.

He said: "We are always confident and positive. Macedonia had a good qualifying group, we will have to play a great match. Then we will see what happens in the final.

Asked about the prospect of coming up against Portugal, he said: "We would have liked to avoid them, in the same way Portugal would have gladly avoided Italy."

The draw also threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine.

Russia will host Poland, with the winners playing either Sweden or the Czech Republic. 

Italy or Portugal will miss out on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the two most recent European champions were drawn in the same play-off path.

Roberto Mancini led Italy to a Euro 2020 triumph earlier this year, yet the Azzurri failed to qualify automatically for next year's World Cup, with Switzerland progressing instead.

Portugal, Euro 2016 winners, also fell short, finishing three points behind Serbia in Group A.

And now one of the heavyweights will fail to appear in Qatar, with both teams drawn together in Path C of the play-offs, which will take place in March.

Italy were drawn in a semi-final against minnows North Macedonia, who are aiming to make their first appearance at a World Cup, while Portugal will face Turkey.

Should they progress, Portugal will have home advantage in the Path C final to determine which team progresses to Qatar. While Cristiano Ronaldo could well be fighting to play in his final World Cup, the Azzurri will be aiming to avoid missing out on the tournament for a second successive time.

Path A threw up the possibility of Wales going up against Scotland for a place in the finals, should they overcome Austria and Ukraine, who went unbeaten in a qualifying group that also included reigning world champions France, respectively.

In Path B, Russia will host Poland and Sweden will play the Czech Republic. 

The winner of Russia v Poland will host the Path B final.

Play-offs draw in full

Path A

SF1 – Scotland v Ukraine

SF2 – Wales v Austria

F1 – Winner SF2 v Winner SF1

Path B

SF3 – Russia v Poland

SF4 – Sweden v Czech Republic

F2 – Winner SF3 v Winner SF4

Path C

SF5 – Italy v North Macedonia

SF6 – Portugal v Turkey

F3 – Winner SF6 v Winner SF5

Switzerland kept their word and thanked Northern Ireland for helping them to reach the World Cup – by sending the team chocolate.

In one of the sweeter football stories of the week, Switzerland posted a video to social media on Wednesday showing head coach Murat Yakin boxing up some confectionery treats to send to Belfast.

It was their way of showing their gratitude for Northern Ireland's goalless draw with Italy in the final round of European World Cup qualifying group games, a result that, combined with Switzerland's 4-0 win over Bulgaria, saw Yakin's men seal their place at Qatar 2022.

Ian Baraclough's side are to receive 9.3 kilograms of Swiss chocolate in recognition of preventing the European champions from scoring for 93 minutes.

Switzerland had previously promised a gift after initially paying tribute in their post-match celebrations at the team hotel in Lucerne, where they sung Sweet Caroline, the 1969 Neil Diamond hit that has become a staple song at Northern Ireland matches.

The Euro 2020 quarter-finalists drew 1-1 with Italy in their penultimate qualifier, in which Jorginho missed a 90th-minute penalty for the Azzurri. That result ensured they were able to finish two points clear at the top of Group C after the final round of games.

Italy, meanwhile, must now contend the play-offs alongside teams including Portugal, Sweden, Wales and Russia. The draw for the semi-finals takes place on Friday.

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