Kylian Mbappe should be fit to feature in France's Nations League clash with Croatia on Monday, according to Didier Deschamps.

The Paris Saint-Germain striker was forced off during Les Bleus' 2-1 defeat to Denmark at the Stade de France earlier this month.

Mbappe appeared to sustain the injury innocuously, pulling up after playing a pass to Aurelien Tchouameni.

He sat out the follow-up draw away to Croatia before coming off the bench to score France's late equaliser against Austria.

Deschamps is unsure how long Mbappe can feature for on Monday, but he is seemingly expecting him to be in contention to play some part.

Asked if Mbappe is fit, Deschamps told reporters: "Yes, according to him, although he still has a feeling that is not ideal.

"He is much less uncomfortable than he was at the start of the week when he couldn't train.

"He was ready to do half an hour [against Austria], it was planned. He exercised his knee where he had this discomfort.

"We are doing everything so that he can be there tomorrow."

Another France forward who is having difficulties of a different variety is Antoine Griezmann.

The 31-year-old, who spent this season on loan at Atletico Madrid, has not scored for club or country since his first appearance of 2022, way back on January 6 in a Copa del Rey win over minnows Rayo Majadahonda.

His last goal for Les Bleus was two months earlier in the 8-0 win over Kazakhstan.

Despite his struggles, Deschamps insists he and the team retain belief in the man who played such a key role in their 2018 World Cup success.

"We have all experienced less beneficial periods, when confidence is less," Deschamps added.

"For Antoine, it is not a question of positioning. I have confidence in him, the group has too, he is not at his best but this can happen to anyone."

Defending champions France are bottom of Nations League Group A1 after three games, having only managed draws with Croatia and Austria after losing to Denmark on matchday one.

N'Golo Kante and Lucas Hernandez have dropped out of the France squad ahead of Monday's Nations League showdown with Croatia.

France head into next week's match sitting bottom of Group A1 after following up a shock 2-1 home loss against Denmark with draws away to Croatia and Austria.

The reigning Nations League champions are four points behind leaders Denmark and two adrift of Austria and Croatia with three games remaining and only one team advancing.

Les Blues will be without central midfielder Kante and versatile defender Hernandez for the visit of Croatia at the Stade de France.

Kante misses out due to a knee injury, while Hernandez has been given permission to join his partner, who is due to give birth.

Neither player played any part in Friday's 1-1 draw against Austria, with Kylian Mbappe cancelling out Andreas Weimann's first-half opener in Vienna to salvage a late point.

Luka Modric was relieved his 150th cap was not marked with a loss against a familiar foe, following Croatia's 1-1 draw with France in Split on Monday.

The home side equalised in the 83rd minute via Andrej Kramaric, who sent Mike Maignan the wrong way from the penalty spot, following Adrien Rabiot's goal in transition in the 52nd.

Following a disappointing second-half in their opening Nations League defeat to Austria, Croatia finished the stronger of the two teams following the introductions of Nikola Vlasic and Luka Sucic.

With the Vatreni having never beaten France at senior international level, including World Cup final and semi-final defeats, Modric was thankful his side could salvage a draw.

"Irrespective of the result, thank God we didn't lose," Modric said after the game. "But we can be content with the performance we displayed. We played well, compactly, bravely and that's what we were after.

"I think the players who came in gave us a new energy. They gave us a freshness and aggression, and in the end we scored, we can be pleased as a result. And if we scored with [Ante] Budimir's chance in the first half, the match might have gone in a different direction.

"Then again, we showed we can hold our own against France, for whoever you put in that team, they're always going to be competent, with enough players for three teams."

Playing in his native Dalmatia, Modric became the first player to ever receive 150 caps for Croatia on Monday, following their readmission as a nation by FIFA in 1992.

Also receiving a gift from the France team pre-match to mark the occasion, the 36-year-old was dignified in response.

"This is a phenomenal feeling," he said post-match. "I'm happy and proud that I was able to reach this achievement with Croatia. I really didn't expect this, but there you go, I'm very proud and happy to have done so.

"Thanks to the crowd for their reception. It's enough to make your hairs stand up. Thanks to them for that, and to the French and Deschamps for their gift. I didn't expect that either but it was a beautiful gesture from them."

Fielding an inexperienced side, Didier Deschamps insisted he will continue his search for optimal balance following France's 1-1 draw away to Croatia on Monday.

Following their opening Nations League defeat at home to Denmark, Les Bleus could only manage a point at the Poljud, with Andrej Kramaric equalising from the penalty spot following Adrien Rabiot's opening goal.

Deschamps went back to 4-4-2 after the opting for a 3-5-2 against Denmark, with several starting players under 10 caps including Moussa Diaby, Matteo Guendouzi, Christopher Nkunku and William Saliba.

With that relative lack of experience in mind, Deschamps was buoyant following his side's performance against the other 2018 World Cup finalist.

"We had overall control with two chances for 2-0 but we conceded a few too many situations to this Croatian team at the end," he said post-game. "The lines were stretched, but it was consistent overall. We could also have avoided the loss of possession at times. I can't be completely satisfied even though there are a lot more positives.

"We must also take into account the merit of the opponent. We also gave them the opportunity to equalise with this penalty. There are also all the changes at the end of the match. There were less than 200 caps in the team selected against Croatia. This is no excuse, but there are fewer automatisms."

The Vatreni finished the stronger of the two sides in Split, with chances falling to Luka Sucic and Nikola Vlasic upon their introductions.

France ended the game with a cumulative xG of 0.69 from seven shots in comparison to Croatia's 1.55 from eight, speaking to their growing inability to turn possession into something substantial in front of goal.

With one point out of a possible six, Deschamps insisted that while Les Bleus are not out of Nations League calculations, November's World Cup in Qatar requires experimentation in preparation for their title defence.

"We are in contention," he said after the match. "But with one point out of six, we are not in the best of moods. They are also preparation matches in anticipation of what awaits us at the end of the year. You have to see different things, different players and different systems.

"There were a lot of forced changes with worries and injuries. Compared to my starting lineup, I still have the same concern to put each player in the best conditions.

"We can always improve in defensive animation, but we can have problems with three, four or five [in defence]. I'm not frozen for the next game. But that doesn't mean I'm going to give up. I want to have more answers."

Andrej Kramaric's VAR-assisted penalty snatched a late 1-1 draw for Croatia against France to deny Les Bleus a first win of the new Nations League campaign.

Adrien Rabiot's strike shortly after the break looked to have fired the visitors to victory in Group A1, in what was a rematch of the Russia 2018 World Cup final won by France.

But the hosts were able to take a share of the spoils in Split with the aid of VAR. Referee Marco Guida's decision to award a penalty for Jonathan Clauss' clumsy challenge on Kramaric was initially kiboshed by the linesman's flag but a review showed Luka Sucic had been onside when receiving Mislav Orsic's pass in the build-up.

Kramaric duly converted with seven minutes remaining at Stadion Poljud to inject a degree of late drama into a game otherwise marked by cagey performances, particularly across a first half that had struggled to burst into life.

Having slipped to an opening loss in their title defence against Demark on Friday, Didier Deschamps rung the changes for this clash, with all but one face swapped out.

With fearsome talents like Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema benched, though, it took until after the interval for the deadlock to be broken.

Seizing onto a terrific ball from Wissam Ben Yedder, midfielder Rabiot steered a superb finish above Dominik Livakovic and into the top-left corner.

That had looked to possibly be enough for the visitors, even as Luka Modric - on his 150th appearance for his country - had helped push for an equaliser.

Kramaric's late intervention, however, proved a return blow, and the two sides ultimately were forced to settle for a point.

Former Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick made a positive start to his tenure in charge of the Austrian national team, defeating Croatia 3-0 in their Nations League opener.

It was Croatia who enjoyed most of the possession early, controlling 60 per cent in the first half, but it would be the Austrians heading into the break as the happier side after Marko Arnautovic tucked his strike into the bottom corner 41 minutes in.

After being out-shot by the Croatians 10-4 in the first half – with Austria's only shot on target finding the back of the net – the second half was a much different story.

Of the seven shots on target in the second 45, all seven belonged to Austria, and they were rewarded with two more quick goals as Michael Gregoritsch made it 2-0 in the 54th minute, before Marcel Sabitzer struck from long-range to cap off the win in stunning style three minutes later.

With the win, Rangnick became the first manager to guide Austria to a win and a clean sheet in their debut since Hans Krankl in 2002.

Speaking after the game, Rangnick said he was pleased with how his side navigated some early pressure to come out on top.

"We had problems in the first 25 minutes, but getting the lead just before the break did us good," he said.

"In the second half we played really well and scored two wonderful goals – we could even have scored more. 

"I am very satisfied."

Striker Arnautovic added: "The players were full of energy. Croatia are an excellent team, but we played a great match. 

"We turned our chances to goals and deserved this win. We want to return to the top."

Austria continues their Nations League campaign against Denmark on Monday.

Didier Deschamps has left France's training camp following the death of his father, French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet has announced.

Training sessions on Tuesday were run by assistant boss Guy Stephan, while a tweet was posted of the team gathering for a moment's silence.

Les Bleus are preparing for four Nations League fixtures this month, the first of which is against Denmark on Friday before a Croatia double-header sandwiches a clash with Austria.

Le Graet said: "It is with great sadness that I have heard of the passing of Didier's father. Didier went to join his relatives and I assure him of my friendship and my support in this ordeal."

Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic has also left his team's base after his father also died.

Dalic had led training on Tuesday before being informed of the news.

"We received this news with great sadness about Zlatko's father's death," Croatian Football Federation president Marijan Kustic said.

"We express our deepest condolences to Zlatko and his family and tell him that the entire Croatian football family is standing by him in this difficult time."

Croatia face Austria on Friday, with their France fixtures coming either side of a trip to Denmark.

John Herdman insists his Canada side will have "no fear" when going up against powerhouses Belgium and Croatia at the 2022 World Cup.

Canada last appeared at the World Cup in 1986, where they lost all three games without scoring a single goal.

However, Canada have been rejuvenated by talented youngsters such as Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies and Lille forward Jonathan David.

Under Herdman's tutelage, Canada finished top of the CONCACAF standings.

Regardless of Canada's quality, though, it will be tough sledding against nations with such storied histories.

Belgium hold the crown for most successful World Cup qualifications without winning the tournament out of any European side, making their 14th appearance, while Croatia made the final in 2018, going down 4-2 to France.

Speaking after finding out Canada's draw, Herdman insisted his side would find the line between having no fear, without being naive.

"We wanted those type of games," said Herdman, who will become the first coach to take charge of a team at both the men's and women's World Cups.

"You go into a World Cup, there are no easy matches and I think any team can beat any team on a given day. That's just tournament football.

"We'll be at our best when we rely on our grit and spirit, and then to bring that 'no fear' [mentality].

"For us, there will be a 'no fear' mentality – not naive, but no fear coming into this. Just see the opportunity to pioneer for this country and get after scoring that first goal for Canada at a World Cup."

Herdman also preached what a valuable chance it will be for some of his players to shine on the biggest stage.

"The opportunity that exists in these types of games, against the best players in the world," he said.

"Players like Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller, and Jonathan Osorio, Canadian boys get the chance to match themselves [against them], but also tell a story in those games.

"Belgium, we know their quality [with] players like [Kevin] De Bruyne and [Romelu] Lukaku and what they've done on the international stage. And then the Croatians, who four years ago were [World Cup] finalists.

"I mean, this is what we want – we want that underdog story."

When analysing the group, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez called Canada "the hidden surprise".

"It's a group that is very interesting, and you have to go into detail to see the nations we will be facing are completely different," he said.

"Morocco for us, we have a real attachment from a football point of view, players that could play for both nationalities, have strong feelings, and then Canada is the hidden surprise. 

"A strong team that hasn’t been in a major tournament for 36 years, so there is that unknown quality, but they're very dangerous. 

"It's a celebration, they will arrive here full of energy, full of belief, full of commitment and you have to find a way to challenge that like we did against Panama in 2018.

"Then you have Croatia, who finished second in 2018, and have probably got players playing in the most demanding teams around Europe, playing at the highest level at a real consistency.  So the group is as versatile as you can find."

The draw is out, and the World Cup suddenly feels a lot closer, with the elite preparing to go for glory at Qatar 2022.

A likely last hurrah on the World Cup stage awaits superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while new names will break through and rising talent will be put to the test.

Eight nations have been champions of the tournament that was first staged in 1930, and it will be France looking to defend the title this time.

Many of us pride ourselves on remembering World Cup trivia from past tournaments, but just how good is your knowledge?

These Opta-assisted 20 questions should sort the group-stage flops from the champions of World Cup quizzing. The answers are below, but don't cheat!

The first...

1. Name the English boss who at Qatar 2022 will become the first to coach a team at both the men's and women's World Cups?

2. Gregg Berhalter will become the first man to serve as player and manager of the USA at the World Cup. He appeared at the 2002 tournament and is now boss of the American side. To which present-day Premier League club did Berhalter then belong, becoming their first World Cup player?

3. Who became the first player to score a Golden Goal winner at the World Cup when he netted for France against Paraguay in a 1998 last-16 clash?

4. In the 2018 showdown between France and Croatia, who became the first player in World Cup final history to score for both teams?

5. Qatar will attempt to become the first nation from the AFC confederation to win their first World Cup finals match. Ten of the previous 11 have lost (including Israel in 1970), but who were the team who in 1982 managed a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia?

 

The last...

6. There have been 52 hat-tricks in the tournament's history, but who was the last player to score a treble in the knockout stages of the World Cup?

7. A goalkeeper won his 159th and final international cap at the 2018 finals, when he became the oldest player to appear at the World Cup, at the age of 45 years and 161 days. He saved a penalty in a 2-1 defeat for his team against Saudi Arabia. Who was that goalkeeper and what team did he play for?

8. Ghana reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 and Senegal did so at the 2002 finals. But who were the first team from Africa to make it to the last eight, doing so at the 1990 finals in Italy?

9. Brazil last lost a group game at the World Cup in 1998, since when they have won 12 and drawn three games at the first-round stage. Which team beat them in that 1998 tournament?

10. Cameroon have lost each of their past seven games at the World Cup (between 2002 and 2014). Only one team have ever lost more games in a row in the competition's history – nine between 1930 and 1958. Who were that team?

The most...

11. Just Fontaine scored his 13 World Cup goals in just six games for France. The competition's all-time record scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose, who netted 16 times for his country in how many appearances: 22, 23 or 24?

12. Who will become the only team to have appeared at all 22 editions of the World Cup when they take part in Qatar 2022?

13. Iran will be making their sixth appearance at the World Cup and have never gone beyond the group stage. Which country has made the most appearances (eight) without making it past the first round?

14. Which forward had the most goal involvements of all players in European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, scoring 12 and assisting six times in 10 games?

15. Since 1966, only three players have completed more than 12 dribbles in a single World Cup game, with Brazil's Jairzinho achieving 13 against Paraguay in 1970 and Paul Gascoigne matching that total for England against Cameroon in 1990. Who managed the most – 15 in a game against Italy at the 1994 tournament?

 

The GOATs...

16. Which superstar, who scored eight times and provided eight assists in 21 World Cup games, also holds the record for the most handball decisions given against a player at the tournament (seven) since records began?

17. Who holds the record for the most minutes played in World Cup history, having featured in 2,216 minutes of finals action?

18. Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo is one of only four players to score in four different World Cup tournaments. He will attempt to go one better this year, but Ronaldo currently sits alongside Pele, Klose and which other player?

19. Between them, Ronaldo (seven) and Lionel Messi (six) have managed 13 World Cup goals. How many of those goals came in the knockout rounds?

20. Ronaldo is one of just two European players to have either scored and/or assisted a goal in each of the last five major international tournaments (World Cup/European Championship). Who is the other player to have managed the feat?

 

Answers:

1. John Herdman (Canada – he managed Canada Women at the 2015 Women's World Cup)
2. Crystal Palace
3. Laurent Blanc (France)
4. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)
5. Kuwait.
6. Tomas Skuhravy (for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica, last 16, 1990)
7. Essam El Hadary (Egypt)
8. Cameroon
9. Norway
10. Mexico
11. 24
12. Brazil
13. Scotland
14. Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
15. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
16. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
17. Paolo Maldini (Italy)
18. Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
19. Zero
20. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

Qatar 2022 is fast approaching and the anticipation will surely be at its most intense so far when Friday's draw for the group stage is completed.

The Doha Exhibition and Convention Center plays host to the milestone event, which will see eight groups drawn from pots as the eventual storylines of the World Cup begin to unfurl.

Among the narratives that will start being mapped out on Friday is France's title defence, with Les Bleus hoping to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

Ahead of the draw, Stats Perform provides a lowdown of all the key information…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, the draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section ahead of Mexico and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

It's nearly four years since Didier Deschamps became only the third man to win the World Cup as a player and coach, as he guided France to their second success on football's grandest stage.

The target now for Les Bleus is to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to retain their crown, and that journey begins on Friday with the draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022.

Four years is a long time to wait for anything, but the draw for the World Cup is always a milestone event that sees the anticipation taken up a notch.

The eyes of the football world will be on the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, where the eight groups will be drawn and potential routes to December's finale can start being plotted.

But there is a little more to the draw than that…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, Friday's draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

Canada could cause an upset at the Qatar World Cup, with Chicago Bears kicker Cairo Santos suggesting they will "fly under the radar" in a similar fashion to Croatia.

The Maple Leafs secured a long-awaited return to the biggest tournament in world football with a 4-0 victory over Jamaica in Toronto on Sunday.

It ends a 36-year exodus from the World Cup, since Canada's only previous appearance was at Mexico 1986, where they lost all three group-stage matches without scoring against France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

But Santos – the NFL's first Brazilian player and a keen footballer as a child – feels Canada will have nothing to prove to themselves when they step out onto the pitch later this year looking to make history, drawing comparisons with 2018 finalists Croatia.

"They're certainly a team that are going to be flying under the radar," Santos told Stats Perform. "They haven't been to the World Cup.

"The World Cup is part of some history that comes with a team, and when you step on the field, the history plays a big part, too.

"If they can be that story that we saw... Croatia kind of did that at the last World Cup. So, why not Canada? They've got some exciting players, too.

"I'll be following them. Maybe we'll see a US-Canada rivalry at some time in the World Cup, too. What a time that will be."

The United States will join Canada in the finals if they avoid a heavy defeat away to Costa Rica in their final CONCACAF qualifier.

USA and Canada, along with Mexico, are hosts of the 2026 World Cup, with their sides building towards that tournament in recent years.

Led by English coach John Herdman, Canada made the semi-finals of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup in their best result in 14 years.

 

Italy were drawn to face England and Germany in a tough 2022-23 Nations League group on Thursday.

The Azzurri beat England in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley in July and the two sides will do battle again in Group A3 of the Nations League.

They will also face Germany and Hungary home and away in matches that will take place next June and September 2022.

Holders France are in Group A1 along with Croatia, Denmark and Austria.

World champions France were crowned champions when they came from behind to beat Spain 2-1 at San Siro in October.

Spain were drawn in Group A2 and will come up against Portugal, Czech Republic and Switzerland in the third edition of the UEFA competition.

Belgium, who squandered a two-goal lead to lose against France at the semi-final stage of the Nations League two months ago, will take on Netherlands, Poland and Wales.

Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Ukraine and Armenia are in League B Group 1.

Russia, Iceland, Israel and Albania will do battle in Group B2, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland and Romania in Group B3.

Group B4 will see Serbia, Sweden, Norway and Slovenia lock horns as they strive to secure promotion.

Four of the six matchdays will be in June due to the scheduling of the World Cup in Qatar later in 2022.

The four group winners in League A will advance to the Nations League Finals in June 2023. The group winners in the other three leagues will all be promoted for the 2024-25 edition.

A remarkable 81st-minute Russia own goal on a waterlogged pitch in Split gifted Croatia the 1-0 win they needed to top Group H and qualify for the 2022 World Cup on Sunday.

Russia led the pool coming into the decisive clash after a run of five straight victories, although they showed little ambition of making that six by beating Croatia for the first time in six meetings.

Seemingly happy instead to sit on a goalless draw that would keep them on course for Qatar, the visitors sought to rely on a defensive record that saw them concede just once in their winning run.

That approach looked to have paid off with the game entering the final 10 minutes and Croatia short of ideas, only for an inadvertent intervention from a Russia defender to turn the situation on its head.

A hopeful Croatia cross from the left skidded through a sodden penalty area and bounced off the knees of left-back Fedor Kudryashov, squirming beyond goalkeeper Matvey Safonov into the bottom-right corner.

Incredibly, that was the first goal in four matches between the sides in qualifying for the European Championship and World Cup.

Russia, who had attempted only one shot to Croatia's 19 up to that point, suddenly scrambled forward in search of an equaliser, but the 2018 finalists clung on, condemning their opponents – hosts of the last finals – to the play-offs.

Mario Mandzukic has retired at the age of 35, and the former Juventus and Bayern Munich striker signed off with a reminder of his World Cup winner against England.

A mainstay of the Croatia national team, Mandzukic hit an extra-time winner in the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Gareth Southgate's team, before scoring at both ends in the 4-2 final defeat to France.

He became the first player to score an own goal in a World Cup final to give France an early lead, before capitalising on a Hugo Lloris mistake to give Croatia late hope.

His retirement announcement, issued on Instagram, was in the form of a letter to his younger self, with Mandzukic saying he should "just be ready around [the] 109th minute" should he ever face England at the World Cup.

That was the minute in which he fired past Jordan Pickford to send Croatia into their first World Cup final as 2-1 winners over England.

Mandzukic's career took off in his early twenties at Dinamo Zagreb, and he was signed by German outfit Wolfsburg in 2010 before moving on two years later to Bayern Munich, for whom he scored in the 2013 Champions League final win over Borussia Dortmund, also winning the Bundesliga twice.

Only Robert Lewandowski (44 goals) and Stefan Kiessling (40) scored more than the 33 Bundesliga goals that Mandzukic managed across his two campaigns at Bayern.

 

A year followed at Atletico Madrid before Mandzukic enjoyed four seasons at Juventus, winning the Serie A title each time and scoring a memorable goal in the Bianconeri's Champions League final loss to Real Madrid in 2017.

He had a spell at Qatari side Al-Duhail and played the last football of his career for Milan in the second half of last season.

Mandzukic, who scored 33 goals in 89 matches for Croatia, addressed his farewell letter to 'little Mario' and wrote: "While you put on these boots for the first time, you can't even imagine what you will get to experience in football.

"You'll score goals at the biggest stages and you'll win the biggest trophies with the biggest clubs. Proudly representing your nation, you will help write the history of Croatian sports.

"You'll succeed because you'll have good people around you – teammates, coaches, fans, and family, agent and friends who will always be there for you. You'll be forever grateful to all of them!

"Above all, you'll succeed because you'll always give your best. At the end, that's what you'll be most proud of. You'll sacrifice a lot, but you'll know it was worth it because of all the amazing moments.

"You'll recognise the moment to retire, to put these boots in a cabinet and you'll have no regrets. Football will always be a part of your life, but you'll look forward to a new chapter.

"P.S. If you happen to play vs England in the World Cup, just be ready around [the] 109th minute."

Mandzukic's winner in that clash with England came from his third goal attempt in the game, all of which he got on target. That was a lesson to an England side who collectively only put two of their 11 efforts on target.

"What a career Big Mario," said former Juve team-mate Blaise Matuidi. "Congratulations you are a legend."

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