The 2022 World Cup is now just 12 months away, with qualifying entering its closing stages following a series of crunch November clashes.

Difficulties still await Italy and Portugal – the past two European champions – in the play-offs, but most of the other big names are well on their way if they have not already confirmed their place in Qatar.

So, how are the expected contenders shaping up? Stats Perform investigates.

Argentina

Having finally ended his long wait for a senior international honour at this year's Copa America, Qatar looks like Lionel Messi's last realistic chance to guide Argentina to World Cup glory. They last triumphed in 1986, in the days of Diego Maradona.

But the brilliant Barcelona form that has been the bedrock of Messi's outstanding career is no more. Since clinching the Copa, the forward has left Camp Nou for Paris Saint-Germain and played just 595 minutes across eight games at club level, scoring three goals and assisting none. Heading into this weekend, he had yet to net in Ligue 1.

At odds with the rest of his career, Messi has briefly become one of those players who performs better for country than for club, scoring four goals in seven games for Argentina in the same period, even allowing for the minutes spent regaining fitness in November. But the national team must be concerned Messi's unconvincing displays and shaky recent fitness record hint at a decline that could continue for another year before he gets an opportunity to lead a global title charge.

Although Argentina undoubtedly have other highly talented players – Messi was one of four to make the Team of the Tournament as they become South American champions – it is tough to imagine a successful Albiceleste side without the great number 10 at the heart of it.

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez's Belgium remain the world's top-ranked team, but it feels like their window for a first major title might now have passed.

Martinez took charge after Euro 2016, where a stacked squad lost to Wales in the last eight, yet he has found a glass ceiling, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and fourth at the 2020-21 Nations League either side of another quarter-final exit at Euro 2020. Since a disappointing performance at the Nations League Finals, Martinez has been linked to a host of club roles – albeit he is expected to stay put until Qatar.

Although Belgium's 'Golden Generation' have maintained their position at the top of the game despite an ageing defence, there are worrying signs their key attacking players could also be on the wane.

Through a combination of injuries and poor form, Eden Hazard has not looked the same player since he left Chelsea for Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, also beset by fitness issues and below-par outings of late, will hope not to follow the same path. Both he and Romelu Lukaku must still be at their peak to give the Red Devils a chance.

Brazil

Brazil were outclassed by Belgium in the quarter-finals in Russia but have lost just three matches since then. One of those was in this year's Copa final against Argentina, although the Selecao also won the competition in 2019.

Unlike previous Brazil teams, Tite's side are built on the strength of their defensive record. They have kept 28 clean sheets since the 2018 World Cup, conceding just 16 times in 42 games, with 11 shutouts in 2021 alone.

However, that solidity comes at a price. Brazil are scoring at a relatively unspectacular rate of 2.0 goals per game, including netting only two in their three Copa knockout games in July and just one across two November qualifiers.

Neymar will have a key role in producing those timely moments of magic and should not be short of motivation heading to Qatar, having suggested this will be his last World Cup. The forward has excelled on the world stage before without taking Brazil all the way.

England

As so often, England have qualified with relative ease, benefiting from a kind draw, but will not face a true test until the tournament comes around.

That means a wait to see if Gareth Southgate can make the necessary tweaks to turn the Three Lions from nearly men into champions, with the midfield a key area of focus having ceded 65.4 per cent of the possession to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, 53.2 per cent to the Netherlands in the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals and 55.5 per cent to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semis. The continued development of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham should encourage optimism.

But England also find themselves in a position, like Argentina, where the performances of their talismanic captain are suddenly a concern – at least at club level.

Harry Kane has so far this season used the international breaks as sweet relief, quickly closing on Wayne Rooney's record goals tally by scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers up to September and notching seven in November alone, but there is a break now before March's fixtures and the forward simply must rediscover some sort of form for Tottenham and add to his single Premier League goal in order to return to the England fold in good nick.

 

France

Welcoming Karim Benzema back into a frightening front line, France appear to have an even more impressive line-up than at the previous World Cup, where they emerged as champions.

Benzema has already directly combined for five goals with Kylian Mbappe and one with Antoine Griezmann, who has in turn linked up once with Mbappe. The trio netted nine of France's 10 goals this month, while Mbappe had assists for each of Benzema's strikes at the Nations League Finals as both players scored in both matches and Les Bleus twice came from behind to take the title.

Yet those prior deficits and the six goals conceded at the Euros hinted at the weaknesses in this France side, as Didier Deschamps is still working on his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

The composition of the midfield in that team is crucial, and N'Golo Kante was missing against Belgium and Spain before Paul Pogba suffered an injury prior to the November fixtures. France have no shortage of quality but may not head to Qatar as the most settled unit.

Germany

It was clear Joachim Low's Germany tenure was reaching its natural conclusion before he announced his departure plans in March. That the team followed up a group-stage exit at the World Cup by stumbling through their pool at the Euros before exiting to England only further illustrated that this was the right decision.

But Germany know all about recovering quickly from such setbacks; they seemed to reach rock bottom at Euro 2000 and were in the World Cup final two years later.

Now Hansi Flick, having set Bayern Munich back on course, is excelling again with the national team, becoming the first Germany coach to win his first six matches in charge – a sequence that now stands at seven and counting. The team's last longer winning run ended at 12 games in 1980.

Germany were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe during qualifying, this despite naming their oldest XI in more than 21 years in a recent qualifier against Liechtenstein. Striking this same balance between energy and experience will be key in Qatar.

Spain

Spain have come a long way since the last World Cup, where they appeared to be in crisis from start to finish, eventually exiting to hosts Russia on penalties.

Luis Enrique's subsequent work across two spells has made them contenders again, reaching the last four at the Euros – only to again fall foul of a shoot-out – and briefly leading France in the Nations League final. The emergence of Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi over the course of these campaigns provides a major cause for long-term optimism, too.

However, injury issues have kept that trio from ever featuring together for their country; in fact, Fati, Pedri and Gavi are yet to play a single minute together for Barcelona.

They were three of 39 players to appear for Spain in qualifying, showing the depth of talent at Luis Enrique's disposal. Within that group, however, there is not a prolific goalscorer – a major concern with 12 months to go.

Eden Hazard is suffering through a "sad moment" in his career, according to Belgium boss Roberto Martinez.

Form and fitness woes have dogged Hazard since his big-money move to Real Madrid from Chelsea in 2019.

The 30-year-old soared to global prominence during a glittering seven-year spell at Stamford Bridge during which he won the Premier League twice, but he has failed to recapture that brilliance at the Santiago Bernabeu.

With Hazard only on the fringes of Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid team this season, Martinez conceded the forward is not having the best of times.

"In the recent years, he has lived with it, but he has been concentrated on the national team," said Martinez, whose side secured their spot at the 2022 World Cup last week.

"We need him to arrive at the World Cup prepared. We have grown as a dressing room.

"Eden is in a sad moment, football-wise. He has left winners projects [but] he doesn't have the rhythm of competition."

Hazard has made just four starts in a total of 10 appearances in LaLiga this season, spending 350 minutes on the pitch.

That time has yielded only one assist, with Hazard yet to score this term.

In his 116 appearances for his country, Hazard has found the net 33 times, but has added only one to that tally during qualifying for Qatar 2022.

Roberto Martinez knows expecations are always high for his Belgium side, and he was proud to tick another important box Saturday as the Red Devils secured qualification for the 2022 World Cup. 

While Belgium did not repeat their 2018 feat of being the first European side to qualify, they will take their place alongside Denmark, France and Germany in Qatar after defeating Estonia 3-1. 

Winners of all but two of their qualifiers since Martinez took charge in 2016, Belgium have plenty of reason to be proud. 

"We're in a situation where we always have to win everything," Martinez told reporters. “That is what the outside world expects and it creates extra pressure. I am very happy that our players are handling this well. They always go for it. 

"Every player is always in a special situation at his club, but with the national team all noses are in the same direction. That's a good mindset. It's not as obvious as it seems.

“We have now played 27 qualifiers under my reign. We won 25 of those. We should be happy about that. That is why we should really celebrate this qualification. That is not so normal.”

Belgium played their penultimate 2022 qualifier without star Romelu Lukaku, who continues to recover from an ankle injury. 

In his absence, Christian Benteke, Yannick Carrasco and Thorgan Hazard found the net in Brussels. 

Martinez said goalkeeper Thibault Coutois may not travel to Cardiff for Tuesday's Group E finale against Wales, but otherwise Belgium will put forth a representative side as their opponents try to lock up second place in the group. 

“We have to try to win there, play the game fairly," Martinez said. "The atmosphere will be very hostile as Wales want to qualify for the play-offs. I will therefore go there with the strongest possible core. 

"Only Courtois may not go to Wales, he is not completely fit and has not trained much. For the rest, no yellow cards or injuries, so everyone is coming along.”

Belgium clinched their spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a routine 3-1 victory over Estonia in their penultimate qualifier.

Roberto Martinez's men were predictably in control throughout the Group E encounter, Christian Benteke's simple finish putting them on course for victory inside a quarter of an hour.

The Red Devils peppered the Estonia goal to no avail for the rest of the first half before Yannick Carrasco, having played a part in the opener, thrashed home a second in the 53rd minute.

Erik Sorga pulled one back for the group's second-bottom side but Thorgan Hazard, after replacing brother Eden, restored Belgium's two-goal advantage, their five-point lead at the summit ensuring they will be at the Finals in the Middle East, which begin next November.

Estonia could only delay the inevitable until the 11th minute as Benteke tapped in after Matvei Igonen spilled Carrasco's pull back following a stunning ball from Kevin De Bruyne.

De Bruyne saw a free-kick superbly turned onto the post by Igonen before Benteke was frustrated by the woodwork and then Igonen as Belgium piled on the pressure.

The instrumental De Bruyne sent Eden Hazard through on goal with a magnificent pass with the outside of his boot, but the Real Madrid man failed to round Igonen, who made a fine smothering stop.

But Igonen could do nothing to stop a swerving long-range effort from Carrasco nestling in the top corner to give Belgium the measure of command their performance merited.

Estonia did produce an unexpected reply, Sorga pouncing on the rebound after Thibaut Courtois could only parry Rauno Sappinen's drive.

It was fittingly De Bruyne who made sure Belgium had the final say as his perfectly weighted cross to the far post was nodded home by Thorgan Hazard, further gloss to the scoreline from Alexis Saelemaekers removed by the offside flag.

Belgium boss Roberto Martinez has insisted that qualifying for the World Cup remains his priority, explaining he will take it slow with Eden Hazard as the Real Madrid forward makes his way back to full fitness.

The Red Devils are five points clear at the top of Group E with two games left to play and can seal their spot at the World Cup with a win over Estonia on Saturday.

Hazard has not started a game at club or international level since the 3-2 defeat against France in the semi-finals of the Nations League last month, however, with his last start for Madrid coming in a 2-1 loss to Sheriff on September 28.

The 30-year-old is set to feature in some way over Belgium's next two games, but Martinez is more concerned with his side confirming their place at the World Cup.

"At the moment all our work is based on trying to qualify," Martinez said ahead of the game against Estonia. "If we need two games to qualify, so be it, and that's our approach.

"If we can qualify with our home game in front of our fans then it's going to be another reset on how we approach the last game [against Wales], but it's important for us that we compete to qualify for the World Cup and try to preserve our position in the world rankings.

"Then it comes to bearing in mind all the [players'] physical states. In the case of Eden he hasn't played a lot of football so every day that we assess here we take a lot into consideration, the same way that we do with every single player that we have.

"The first goal is to qualify for the World Cup and see when we can do that."

Martinez explained that he was pleased with the former Chelsea winger's work in training since arriving for national team duty, but warned that Hazard is unlikely to be fit enough to play for a full match.

"Obviously, when you welcome Eden Hazard into the camp it's just to assess the work that he can do here and I've been very pleased in that respect," Martinez continued. 

"He looks happy, he looks forward to the game and then I just feel that we're going to use how he feels during the game to see if he can play 90 [minutes] or not.

"I would be surprised if he can play 90 at this stage [although] it depends a lot on what type of game we get. With Eden, we're going to go slowly and make sure we make good forward steps.

"I see him in a very, very good mental state, he looks really sharp, so for me, it's a question of seeing how long he can play rather than anything else."

After facing Estonia, Belgium's final Group E game is on Tuesday against Wales, who are five points behind them in the standings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin De Bruyne has been backed to roar back to form by Belgium boss Roberto Martinez as the Manchester City playmaker looks to come through a sticky patch.

Ahead of Saturday's derby against Manchester United, De Bruyne is looking to improve on his unusually quiet start to the season.

In 13 appearances across all competitions, he has managed three goals but just one assist and has played a full 90 minutes only three times, with Pep Guardiola suggesting his chief creator is feeling a little fatigued.

Martinez has selected De Bruyne in his squad for World Cup qualifiers against Estonia and Wales later this month, and quelled concerns about the 30-year-old's performance levels.

He pointed to City's EFL Cup penalty shoot-out loss to West Ham, and the Premier League defeat to Crystal Palace, and suggested those results had turned up the heat.

"When you play in a team expected to win every game, you'll get that level of scrutiny when you don't," Martinez said.

"Man City have been playing their normal brand, they lost a shoot-out then a game at home. I saw Kevin against Brugge [in the Champions League] and his body language was good. I'm not worried at all. We feel that his best football is coming back."

De Bruyne managed 10 goals and 18 assists for City in all competitions last season, creating 28 big chances for others in all. He has carved out five big chances so far in 2021-22, with such opportunities defined by Opta as openings from which a player should reasonably be expected to score.

 

At his best, Eden Hazard was producing spectacular numbers for Chelsea – peaking with 21 goals and 17 assists in 2018-19 – but De Bruyne's Belgium team-mate is enduring a difficult run now he is at Real Madrid.

After four goals and two assists in 21 games last term, Hazard has just a single entry in the latter column for his efforts after 10 outings this term.

Hazard warmed up extensively but was unused by Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti in this week's Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk, prompting an apology from the coach.

"Getting upset is normal. I believe getting upset is the fair reaction to manage this situation," Ancelotti said after the game. "I am so sorry. I told the players: I am sorry, but I didn't want to make any substitutions."

Hazard can stake a claim for greater involvement at Madrid by hitting top gear with Belgium, says Martinez.

"Eden is not playing as many minutes as we all thought," the Belgium boss said. "We've got a close relationship with the Real Madrid physical department and he's fully fit.

"His focus and attitude has given us a positive feeling. I know he's doing extra work to stay in shape, but he needs to be on the pitch to pick up the pace of the match. Coming to the national team can help him in that sense.

"It's important for every player to be on the pitch and achieve what he wants to achieve. It's a difficult situation when you can't, and it has been a difficult two years, but the signs are positive that he can get himself ready for a strong finish in the campaign."

Eden Hazard is "medically perfect" but there is concern about the Belgium star's injury problems, according to national team boss Roberto Martinez.

The playmaker has endured a miserable time in Spain due to persistent physical issues since his move from Chelsea in 2019 for a reported €100million (£88.5m).

Hazard has only completed four matches for Los Blancos in all competitions, scoring just five goals in 51 appearances in total, as patience over his lack of availability runs thin among fans and local media.

The 30-year-old impressed in the first half of the Nations League semi-final against France last week, as Belgium took a 2-0 lead into half-time, but he was taken off in the 74th minute as Martinez's side went on to lose 3-2 to the world champions.

Hazard sat out the 2-1 third-place play-off defeat to Italy, Martinez saying he was suffering from "muscle fatigue" but adding he did not know how long the former Lille star would need to recover.

Indeed, Martinez has found it difficult to determine why Hazard, a player he believes can still challenge for the Ballon d'Or, has endured so many injuries since his move to Spain two years ago.

"It's certainly true that Eden is not now in a physical situation to be at 100 per cent for 90 minutes," Martinez told El Larguero. "What's important now is to have patience, to work well and try to get Hazard, bit by bit, to get back to that level he's always had.

 

"His situation in Spain is very atypical. He found a situation that's new for him, because he was never injured and suddenly finds himself over the course of two years with no explanation for so many injuries.

"We're all worried and I'm sure Real Madrid are as well. He's a player who needs the ball, needs to dribble, and in order to reach his maximum physical level, he needs to play games.

"What I've seen is that he is medically perfect. The first 45 minutes [against France] were really enjoyable. We hope that, between Real Madrid and the national team, we can help him so he can get the minutes he needs. If he's at the level of those 45 minutes against France, I'm sure he'll bring a lot of success to Belgium, but especially to Real Madrid."

Martinez's future has come under scrutiny in recent weeks following reports he was a prime candidate to take over from Ronald Koeman as Barcelona head coach.

That was until Barca president Joan Laporta insisted he would give Koeman time to turn things around amid a run of just two wins in eight matches in all competitions.

Regardless, Martinez says he has not spoken to the club and has not yet decided if he will commit to the Belgium job beyond next year's World Cup in Qatar.

"It's been a difficult period because it seems like you don't want to answer, but the truth is they've not had any contact with me," he said.

"You know how rumours with coaches work. It's nothing more than an anecdote that helps me start the day with a smile.

"I still haven't decided [if I will stay after the World Cup]. Whenever I talk about my future, I don't usually clarify it.

"We're continuing a really beautiful, ambitious project and you have to think day by day. I've learned that the emotional side of a national team is on another level to what happens at a club."

Roberto Martinez retains the full support of the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) but has been told lessons must be learned from Belgium's disappointing Nations League Finals campaign.

Belgium let a two-goal half-time lead slip in last week's 3-2 defeat to France in the semi-finals and followed that up with a 2-1 loss at the hands of European champions Italy in the third-place play-off on Sunday.

The Red Devils are on course to finish the year as FIFA's top-ranked national side for the fourth time running, but their 'golden generation' of players have still yet to win any silverware.

Martinez could only guide Belgium to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, having previously finished third at the 2018 World Cup (they were also beaten by Italy and France respectively in those tournaments), but the Spaniard – who has been strongly linked with replacing Ronald Koeman at Barcelona – is not at risk of being sacked.

However, RBFA chief executive Peter Bossaert accepts that the second-half display against France cannot be repeated if Belgium are to have any chance of ending their wait for a trophy.

"Roberto is still the right man for the job," Bossaert told La Derniere Heure. "We still support him 100 per cent. But we have to learn from the game against France, in which we played our best half of football and worst half in a long time.

"I'm going to ask some people for advice, but I'm not going to create a commission or a committee. I also don't want too many people giving their opinions because then there will be too many differing opinions."

Belgium are top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group with 16 points from six matches and return to action on November 13 with a home game against Estonia.

Martinez agrees with Bossaert that Belgium were not good enough during the Nations League Finals, even if there were some positives to take away from the mini-tournament.

"We cannot concede five goals in two games and we cannot concede two penalties, even if the decisions were not correct," he said.

"But the way we reacted to going behind against Italy, after what had happened in the France game, I thought the team had a real strong personality to keep playing."

Kevin De Bruyne insists it is not realistic for Belgium to compete with heavyweights such as France and Italy after finishing fourth in the Nations League.

The Red Devils let a two-goal lead slip to lose 3-2 to France in last week's semi-final and were beaten 2-1 by Italy in Sunday's third-place play-off.

Despite being on course to end the year as FIFA's top-ranked national side for a fourth time running, De Bruyne has called for some perspective on the back of a difficult week.

"We did well at times against some top teams and had many new faces who did more than a decent job today," he told Belgian publication HLN.

"It's good experience for them to be able to play against opponents of this calibre, but unfortunately we lost twice. 

"With all due respect, playing against Estonia is not the same thing and these challenges are necessary for us to grow, both as individuals and as a team.

"We are 'just' Belgium. It's a new generation and we were missing Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard against Italy, so we have to be realistic about the team we have. 

"Italy, France and Spain have 22 top players to choose from and we do not."

Belgium's 'Golden Generation' of players have yet to win a major trophy, most recently finishing third at the 2018 World Cup, either side of quarter-final exits at Euro 2016 and 2020.

Roberto Martinez's side are top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group with 16 points from six matches and return to action on November 13 with a home game against Estonia.

Barcelona-linked Martinez has acknowledged that his side have to improve when they take on some of the world's bigger nations.

"We cannot concede five goals in two games and we cannot concede two penalties, even if the decisions were not correct," he said following the loss to Italy.

"But the way we reacted to going behind against Italy, after what had happened in the France game, I thought the team had a real strong personality to keep playing."

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois criticised UEFA and FIFA for their attitude towards player welfare due to the number of fixtures being crammed into the calendar.

The 29-year-old was speaking on the back of his national side's 2-1 loss to Italy in the Nations League third-place play-off on Sunday.

Both teams rested a number of players for the match at the Allianz Stadium, with Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard absent for Belgium due to muscular problems.

Courtois also played a full part in the semi-final defeat to France three days earlier and has questioned why his side had to face Italy in what he felt was a meaningless match.

"This game is just a money game and we have to be honest about it," he said in his post-match interview. "We just play it because for UEFA it's extra money.

"Look at how much both teams changed [line-ups]. If both teams would have been in the final, there would have been other players in the final playing.

"This just shows that we play too many games."

The international calendar is potentially facing further changes, with a biennial World Cup being proposed by FIFA's head of global development Arsene Wenger.

UEFA has already made clear it is against the plans and Courtois has added his name to a growing list of dissenters.

"They [UEFA] made an extra trophy [the Europa Conference League]… it is always the same," he said.

"They can be angry about other teams wanting a Super League, but they don't care about the players, they just care about their pockets.

"It's a bad thing that players are not spoken about. And now you hear about a European Championship and a World Cup every year, when will we get a rest? Never."

Courtois added: "In the end top players will get injured and injured and injured. It's something that should be much better and much more taken care of.

"We are not robots! It's just more and more games and less rest for us and nobody cares about us.

"Next year we have a World Cup in November, we have to play until the latter stages of June again. We will get injured! Nobody cares about the players anymore.

"Three weeks of holiday is not enough for players to be able to continue for 12 months at the highest level. If we never say anything it [will be] always the same."

Roberto Martinez said it is "difficult for me to talk about rumours" after addressing speculation he could replace Ronald Koeman as Barcelona boss.

Martinez saw his Belgium side defeated 2-1 by Italy in Sunday's Nations League third-place play-off, having lost to the Azzurri by the same scoreline in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020.

Speaking after Sunday's game, Martinez was asked about links to Barca, with Koeman's position under threat after an indifferent start in LaLiga this season and back-to-back 3-0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica in the Champions League.

"It's difficult for me to talk about rumours. I've been working with this team for five years and am fully concentrated on this role," Martinez told reporters post-match.

"We came to the Nations League to win it and did not manage that, but now we prepare for World Cup qualifying. I have nothing more to add."

Nicolo Barella's goal and a Domenico Berardi penalty were enough for Italy to defeat Belgium, for whom Charles De Ketelaere's first international goal was not enough to mount a comeback.

It marked the first time Belgium have suffered back-to-back competitive defeats since September 2010 and Martinez, whose team let a two-goal lead slip against France in the semi-final on Thursday, was left frustrated.

"The penalty was a debatable decision and one that frankly I do not agree with. I try to be respectful with the referee, but you need experience at a tournament of this level," he added.

"We are very frustrated by VAR intervening against France, saying referees ought to be given responsibility for their decisions, but why didn't the VAR intervene today when the referee needed help? The frustration grew as the game wore on."

Substitute Kevin de Bruyne, who assisted De Ketelaere's late consolation goal, was also disappointed but felt the experience has been good for some of Belgium's younger squad members.

"We did well at times against some top teams and had many new faces who did more than a decent job today," De Bruyne told Belgian outlet HNL.

"It's a good experience for them to be able to play against opponents of this calibre, but unfortunately we lost twice.

"With all due respect, playing against Estonia is not the same thing and these challenges are necessary for us to grow, both as individuals and as a team.

"We are 'just' Belgium. It's a new generation, we were missing Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard today, so we have to be realistic about the team we have.

"Italy, France and Spain have 22 top players to choose from and we do not."

Nicolo Barella and Domenico Berardi struck in the second half as Italy defeated Belgium 2-1 to claim third place at the 2021 Nations League Finals on Sunday.

Roberto Martinez's side, who let slip a two-goal lead to lose to France on Thursday, were denied twice by the woodwork either side of Barella's volley, which gave the reigning European champions the lead just a minute after the interval.

Berardi then scored from the penalty spot to add a second for Roberto Mancini's team, who had their record 37-game unbeaten run ended by Spain in Wednesday's semi-final, before Charles de Ketelaere netted a late consolation.

Italy banished any demons after their first competitive loss on home soil since 1999 while Belgium - having faltered in a Euro 2020 quarter-final against the same opponents - may now have to wait until the 2022 World Cup to inflict revenge.

Federico Chiesa blasted the first chance of the contest narrowly over from a tight angle before a deflected effort from Berardi was parried away by Thibaut Courtois.

Toby Alderweireld's near-post header then forced Gianluigi Donnarumma's first save, but the Italy goalkeeper could only stand and watch as Alexis Saelemaekers curled onto the crossbar moments later.

Barella responded by sending a speculative long-range effort over before Chiesa was excellently denied by Courtois' legs on the stroke of half-time.

Courtois, however, was no match for Barella's right-footed volley straight after the break, the midfielder finding the bottom corner to open the scoring.

Michy Batshuayi almost immediately drew Belgium level, his right-footed drive cannoning into the bar, before Timothy Castagne needlessly fouled Chiesa to concede a penalty, one Berardi converted despite Courtois getting a hand to the effort.

Yannick Carrasco struck the right-hand post and while De Ketelaere did roll through Donnarumma's legs to score, Belgium could were unable to find a late leveller.

Belgium's Nations League hopes fell flat on Thursday, but Yannick Carrasco insists the squad still have faith they can achieve glory at the 2022 World Cup.

The world's number one ranked team squandered a two-goal lead as France came back to win 3-2 in their semi-final clash in Turin, Theo Hernandez scoring the crucial fifth goal of a thrilling contest in the 90th minute.

Instead of heading to San Siro to face Spain in the final, Belgium are instead back at the Allianz Stadium on Sunday, going up against European champions Italy in a third-place play-off.

It is the second such match during Roberto Martinez's tenure, the Barcelona-linked coach having previously guided Belgium to the semi-finals of World Cup 2018, where they also fell foul of France.

Belgium defeated England to claim third place in Russia, before reaching the quarter-finals at Euro 2020. Sunday's opponents Italy beat them there.

When asked if Belgium's squad still held belief in their ability to challenge at next year's World Cup in Qatar, Atletico Madrid winger Carrasco turned the tables on the media.

"Do we believe that we can win a prize in Qatar? We always believe in ourselves," he told a news conference.

"But do you still believe in us? Because we don't have that feeling. We know that we have a good team, that we can do something beautiful.

"On Friday, the coach showed what we did well and what we did badly.

"That is necessary to prepare for Qatar. A year is not long with the national team, we will use the match against France to get better."

 

Martinez, meanwhile, said a new cycle had now started for Belgium as they look to build towards the World Cup, which arguably presents the final chance for the Red Devils' 'golden generation' to claim a trophy.

He said: "A new cycle has started, that of preparing for the World Cup.

"Over the past five years we have created a style of play. Multiple players can bring what the team needs but our style of play goes beyond individuals. 

"We have been number one in the world for three years. Of course that is important. We want to remain number one. But our main motivation is to get better. The second half against France showed we are not the finished product."

Belgium will be out for revenge against the Azzurri, aiming to at least end their Nations League campaign on a high. However, they will be without Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who have both been withdrawn due to what Martinez described as "muscle overload".

"I cannot say," Martinez said when asked if the duo would be fit for their clubs next week. "That is a question for the medical department. But it is definitely about overload and not injury."

Didier Deschamps said he never doubted Kylian Mbappe after his return to form in France's last-gasp win over Belgium in the Nations League semi-finals.

Mbappe scored a penalty as France completed a stunning Nations League comeback in Turin on Thursday, overturning a 2-0 deficit in a 3-2 triumph en route to the final thanks to Theo Hernandez's 90th-minute strike.

All eyes were on Mbappe after revealing he considered taking a break from international football following France's Euro 2020 disappointment.

Mbappe missed the decisive penalty as France sensationally crashed out of Euro 2020 at the hands of Switzerland in the round of 16 but the Paris Saint-Germain star assisted Karim Benzema's goal before equalising with his 69th-minute spot-kick.

Afterwards, France head coach Deschamps hailed Mbappe, who became the youngest player to reach 50 games for Les Bleus (22 years and 291 days), overtaking Benzema (24 years and 240 days).

"Kylian [Mbappe] didn't have any doubts," Deschamps told reporters. "I have always been behind him, I saw his determination. He was full of good intentions during the Euros, he missed the efficiency in the end, but he was injured, he couldn't play the second and third game.

"There are a lot of expectations with Kylian. I've always said this, and it's not to be nice, I know very well France is a lot stronger with Kylian. Today he did it.

"Offensively, in his efforts, the way he is complementary with Benzema and [Antoine] Griezmann has added to that. It's good for France. But I never had any doubts about him.

"It will have been good for him, definitely, on a personal level, but since he arrived at the start of this week, I could sense that he felt that it was an important match for him as well, and all for the better for him and for us."

Hernandez's thunderous long-range winner meant world champions France claimed their first victory after trailing by two or more goals at half-time since May 2012 against Iceland in an international friendly.

Belgium had led 2-0 at the interval thanks to Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku but France will now meet Spain in Sunday's Nations League showpiece.

"It's the kind of football that we like when we end up on the right side of it," Deschamps said. "It's amazing to go from one emotion into another in a big game like that, against an opponent like that. We were on the wrong side of it this summer, and it hurts.

"It's hard, I put myself in Roberto Martinez's shoes when it comes to the final scoreline, it hurts. But you have to accept it. Much joy and pride, I'm here for that. I've known many great moments, and we're going to have more. Because the quality we have in this side, the spirit, the mentality even if we had to react to the situation. But to be able to turn around a situation like that, I can only be proud of what we've done tonight."

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