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

And so, the countdown begins…

The 2022 World Cup is just over a year away, with Qatar set to begin the tournament against a still-to-be-decided opponent on November 21, 2022.

Even writing it feels strange. A World Cup… starting in November. But that is the reality, with Qatar's controversial – to put it kindly – hosting of the competition effectively rendering a tournament in June/July impossible due to the conditions.

With only a year to go, 13 of the competing nations (including Qatar) have confirmed their qualification, including record five-time winners Brazil and defending champions France.

Of course, most countries will have a fairly settled group of players, but a year is a long time in football, and a few newcomers will make the breakthrough.

As such, Stats Perform has identified 11 uncapped players who could break into their respective national teams by this time in 2022, and those players' progress will be tracked over the next 12 months in follow-up features.

Without any further ado, here are the chosen players...

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 22, goalkeeper, Granada

Yes, yes, Maximiano's inclusion here already implies a massive assumption that Portugal will even make it to Qatar, given their 2-1 home defeat by Serbia left them needing to go through the play-offs.

Nevertheless, it's reasonable to expect them to make it, and if they do, Maximiano may fancy himself as being in with a shot, particularly after a strong start to 2021-22.

He replaced compatriot Rui Silva – who left for Real Betis – between the posts at Granada after falling out of favour at Sporting CP, and he's showing his quality.

 

According to Opta's xGOT (expected goals on target) conceded data, Maximiano has already prevented 3.7 goals in LaLiga this season, the second-most in the division.

Of course, such metrics are weighted in favour of goalkeepers in teams are that kept defensively busy, and Granada are 17th in LaLiga, but we can create a fairer comparison by standardising for the number of shots each keeper faced by looking at their 'goals prevented rate'.

Maximiano's goals prevented rate of 1.37 means he was expected to concede 1.37 goals for every goal actually conceded, and again this is the second best in the league this season.

His shot-stopping abilities have reportedly caught the attention of Barcelona, and given Portugal's lack of a standout goalkeeper (and that's including first-choice Rui Patricio), Maximiano certainly isn't out of the running for Qatar 2022.

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Football loves a late bloomer; maybe it's because they convince some of us we can still make it as a professional player. Lens star Clauss is a fascinating embodiment of the phenomenon.

Now 29, Clauss did not make his top-flight debut until the start of 2020-21, but it's fair to say he's been a revelation in a Lens side who have truly captured the imagination since they were promoted back to Ligue 1 in 2019-20 – 13 games into the current campaign, they're second to PSG.

A year out from Qatar 2022, Clauss is being mentioned in France media conferences, with Didier Deschamps last week asked why he wasn't called up. Of course, the coach's decision to go with options he knows when qualification wasn't assured is fair enough, but the Lens man is seemingly now in contention.

He has already had a hand in eight Ligue 1 goals this season, with six assists the joint-most in the division. His positivity on the flank as a wing-back is proving a massive asset to Lens, for whom he also set up six goals last term.

Of course, his greater comfort as a wing-back rather than an orthodox full-back may in the long run count against him, but Clauss is demonstrably effective going forward – usual France right-back options Benjamin Pavard and Leo Dubois aren't, and that may be his 'in'.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Playing in a generally poor team can go one of two ways for a centre-back: you're either considered a big part of the problem, or you thrive because you're given more opportunities to show your strengths.

For Bremer in a Torino team that have finished 16th and 17th in the past two seasons, it's definitely been the latter.

The 24-year-old has reportedly attracted the interest of numerous Premier League clubs, with Liverpool seemingly the team that are most keen.

While he's not a particularly great progressor of the ball, his 4.9 passes into the final third per 90 minutes since the start of last season being almost half the figures of the highest-ranking Serie A defenders, Bremer is a reliable centre-back first and foremost.

His four clearances per game is up there with the best (only one player averages more than 4.7), while Bremer's positional sense is highlighted by 2.6 interceptions every 90 minutes, a figure bettered by only five defenders (min. 1,000 minutes played since 2020-21 started).

Similarly, the centre-back wins 3.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes, which again is the sixth-highest among that group of defenders.

Brazil don't have outstanding depth at centre-back, all the more reason why Bremer is in with a shot – a move to Liverpool or another 'giant' would only help his cause.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 21, centre-back, Lille

Ball-playing centre-backs grow on trees in the Netherlands, or so you'd think. Botman is another off the very reliable production line, having come through the esteemed ranks at Ajax.

Lille signed him for roughly €9million in July 2020 after he enjoyed a promising loan spell with Heerenveen, and he went on to play in all but one Ligue 1 match as Les Dogues won the title.

Life's been a little tougher for Lille this term following the loss of coach Christophe Galtier to Nice, but Botman remains a key player and retains a fine reputation from 2020-21.

Since the start of last season, his 1,295 forward passes is the second most in the division and he ranks 11th for the most ball carries (635).

He's a progressive centre-back who offers plenty of forward-thinking but is also reliable when it comes to getting stuck in.

Over the same period, he's come out on top in 67.8 per cent of his duels, which is the second-best success rate among players to have engaged in at least 150.

Granted, the Netherlands' centre-back options are deep, but Botman's been in the squad before and there's little doubt he would be a good fit for them stylistically.

Angelino (Spain) – 24, left-back, RB Leipzig

It may surprise a few people to learn Angelino has never played for Spain. In fact, he's never even received a call-up to the senior side.

Let's not forget, Spain are blessed with a lot of quality in left-back and wing-back roles. Currently, Jordi Alba, Marcos Alonso, Jose Gaya and Sergio Reguilon are the favoured options, but Angelino is arguably in better form than any of them.

All five players are probably at their best as wing-backs rather than full-backs, and Luis Enrique's current system does allow for such players, which is another reason for Angelino's suitability. Then it comes down to effectiveness on the pitch.

Since the start of last season, in league competition Angelino tops a host of attacking metrics among the aforementioned players. He creates 2.2 chances per 90 minutes on average, with Alonso and Alba next on 1.6.

While Angelino's 0.16 assists every 90 minutes is lower than Alba's 0.22, the Leipzig man is seemingly being let down by poor finishing as his expected assists each game is 0.31 – again, this is the highest.

On a per-90-minute basis, Angelino creates the most chances from open play (1.6), plays the most crosses (5.5) and passes into the box (9.9) most frequently among this group.

Of course, this is partly explained by him playing slightly further forward than his counterparts, but Spain spend most of the time on the ball anyway – having someone as effective as Angelino in attack must be a consideration for Luis Enrique.

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It feels like Puig has been around for a long time, because even before he was around the first-team squad, Barca fans were singing his praises.

He had been considered as potentially their next legendary midfielder, such was his blend of technical excellence and fine passing skills, two staples of Barca's La Masia academy.

But it's not quite worked out that way.

In the past three seasons, he's only played more than 300 minutes over the course of a LaLiga campaign once, under Quique Setien in 2019-20. While he did feature in 14 league games for Ronald Koeman last term, that amounted to 283 minutes at an average of 20.2 mins in each appearance, and that did not improve this term prior to the Dutchman's sacking.

So, why is he even on this list?

Well, as much as anything because his progress will be intriguing to watch once again now that Xavi is at the helm. If there's anyone who can appreciate Puig's qualities, it'll surely be him.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

While Nkunku has generally been considered a versatile central midfielder for much of his career, he's excelled in a slightly different role since Jesse Marsch's introduction as Leipzig coach.

He's operated more from the flanks and is getting into the opposition's penalty area with greater frequency, his touches in the box up from 5.2 per 90 minutes to 7.7 this season.

As such, he's getting more shots away in the area (2.2 every 90 minutes, up from 1.7) and that's unsurprisingly led to an increased xG average of 0.45 each game.

He's already got 11 goals across all competitions, four more than he managed in 2020-21, suggesting the change in role is paying dividends, though he remains an able option in the middle such is his quality on the ball and ability to break forward.

In each of the past two seasons, Nkunku didn't manage to start more than 21 league games, but he's already on 11 this term. He's maturing and seemingly found his niche – now all he needs is that elusive first call-up.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, Independiente

Lionel Scaloni has restored a significant amount of respect for Argentina's national team, guiding them to Copa America success earlier this year – that was their first international title at senior level in 28 years.

During his three years in charge, Scaloni has used 75 different players in matches, which shows both the wealth of options he has but also how willing he is to give individuals a chance.

In attack is arguably where Argentina's depth is greatest, but Independiente talent Velasco is surely one of the likeliest to earn a first cap over the next 12 months.

A positive and direct left-winger who likes to cut inside onto his right foot, Velasco has been enjoying something of a breakthrough season in Argentina's Primera Division, particularly during the second stage.

 

He has five goal involvements (one goal, four assists) since mid-July, with no one in the division managing to set up more than five in the entire year, and he has unsurprisingly become a bit of a target for opponents, as highlighted by his 2.9 fouls suffered every 90 minutes being the third-most among players with at least five appearances.

But that doesn't deter him. His 41 chances created is the third highest in the division, and the most among under-21 players, while his 91 dribbles completed and 4.8 per 90 minutes are both league highs.

Velasco also works hard off the ball, making 47 recoveries in the opposition's half, which is fifth among all players. The teenager is a big talent who also boasts strong work ethic – Scaloni will surely have him earmarked as one to watch.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

There aren't many countries in the world producing more exciting young talent than the United States at the moment, with their squads for the next few World Cups shaping up to be very promising.

While 2022 will probably come too soon for Cowell – arguably the wildcard of this list – he certainly shouldn't be written off, given he has already spent time training with the senior squad before.

A dynamic, quick and strong attacker who play out wide as well, Cowell is the third-youngest player in MLS history to reach 50 appearances, having reached that landmark at 18 years and 16 days old. Only Freddy Adu (16y, 2m, 25d) and Alphonso Davies (17y, 7m) got there quicker.

 

This season, despite only starting for 14 of his 33 MLS appearances, Cowell has amassed 11 goal involvements (five goals, six assists), which only Jesus Ferreira (17 – 8g, 9a) and Ricardo Pepi (16 – 13g, 3a) can better among under-21 players.

There's no mistaking Cowell is very much a rough diamond. He doesn't create a huge amount of chances (1.3 per 90 mins), his duels (32.2 per cent) and dribble (47.6 per cent) success rates aren't great, but he's young and raw. Improvements here should come naturally, and a big 2022 might just propel him into a national side that's not afraid to give youngsters a chance.

 

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

If there's one team in international football that would be the toughest to break into as a forward, it's probably France, but Gouiri looks special.

It now looks utterly astonishing that Nice managed to get him for as little as an initial €7million from Lyon in 2020, and the versatile forward – who is comfortable on the left or through the middle – is enjoying the kind of consistency not always associated with young players.

The 2020-21 season was his first as a regular starter in top-flight football and he went on to score a highly respectable 12 goals. While that failed to match his 14.6 expected goals (xG), perhaps showing a degree of inexperience, he did also lay on seven assists.

 

Once again, Gouiri's goals haul of six is a little behind his xG (8.1), suggesting a hint of wastefulness, but only three players are providing greater service than him, with his 3.3 expected assists (xA) ranking high.

Technically, Gouiri is exceptional and explosive, and this undoubtedly helps him create openings and space in the final third, with his combined average of 0.97 expected goals and assists every 90 minutes this season the second-highest in Ligue 1.

Gouiri is too good to never play for France – it's only a matter of time until he gets the call-up, and if he carries on his current trajectory for the next 12 months, Qatar will beckon.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 18, forward, River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo.

The teenager turns 19 this November, so he's still got lots to learn and much room for growth, but the early signs are hugely promising – his stocky appearance, powerful style of play and feistiness (13 yellow cards over 2020 and 2021) have earned him the nickname 'Buffalo', and he's already a reliable source of goals despite his youth.

Arezo scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he's matched that haul from 26 outings this year. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe.

Qatar 2022 will almost certainly be the last World Cup for Suarez and Cavani if Uruguay make it, so they are likely to be involved – but otherwise, La Celeste's forward options are up in the air.

Arezo has been coping well in the physical competitiveness of South America's domestic football and must be in with a great shout of forcing his way into contention for the mission to Qatar.

Cristiano Ronaldo conceded that Sunday's 2-1 defeat to Serbia was "tough" but vowed that Portugal's hopes of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup are "still very much alive."

Despite an early goal from Renato Sanches in Lisbon, an equaliser from Dusan Tadic and a 90th-minute Aleksandar Mitrovic header saw Serbia leapfrog Portugal to win Group A in World Cup qualifying.

Fernando Santos' men must now go through the play-offs in March if they are to qualify for the showpiece tournament, though captain Ronaldo reassured he still believes his side will qualify for Qatar.

"Football has shown us time and time again that, at times, it is the most winding paths that lead to the most desired outcomes," the 36-year-old posted on Instagram.

"Yesterday's result was tough, but not enough to get us down. The objective of being present at the 2022 World Cup is still very much alive and we know what we have to do to get there. No excuses. Portugal [are] heading to Qatar."

Ronaldo scored six goals in seven games for his country in qualifying, which included a goal against the Republic of Ireland that saw him become the all-time record goalscorer in international football, overtaking Iran's Ali Daei (109).

Portugal head coach Santos played down a gesture made by Ronaldo after the late defeat, insisting that his captain was referencing March's reverse fixture in Belgrade, in which the Manchester United forward was not awarded a stoppage-time goal despite the ball appearing to cross the line in the 2-2 draw.

"Nobody was explaining anything," Santos told reporters when asked about Ronaldo. "He was telling the other guy that there [in Serbia] he had scored a goal at the last minute and that the referee didn't count.

"That's what he was saying at the time. It wasn't a matter for us to be there now. On the field, he said that we scored a goal there and the referee didn't, but it's his outburst. It's perfectly normal."

Fernando Santos played down Cristiano Ronaldo's gesture after Portugal missed out on automatic World Cup qualification, though the under-fire head coach guaranteed his team will be in Qatar next year.

Portugal will feature in the World Cup play-offs following Sunday's dramatic 2-1 defeat at home to Serbia in Lisbon.

Requiring only a draw to book their trip to Qatar in Group A, Portugal were on track after Renato Sanches and Dusan Tadic traded goals in the opening half.

However, Aleksandar Mitrovic came off the bench and scored in the 90th minute to send Serbia to the showpiece tournament.

Portugal superstar and captain Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure afterwards, gesturing as coach Santos approached him on the pitch post-game.

But Santos insisted Ronaldo was referencing March's reverse fixture in Belgrade, where the five-time Ballon d'Or winner was not awarded a stoppage-time goal, despite the ball appearing to cross the line in the 2-2 draw.

"Nobody was explaining anything," Santos told reporters when asked about Ronaldo. "He was telling the other guy that there [in Serbia] he had scored a goal at the last minute and that the referee didn't count.

"That's what he was saying at the time. It wasn't a matter for us to be there now. On the field, he said that we scored a goal there and the referee didn't, but it's his outburst. It's perfectly normal.

"Now no one goes after a game to explain what happened or didn't happen. I went to raise the players' heads."

Ronaldo's Portugal will take part in the play-offs as one of the second-placed seeded teams.

The play-offs will not be contested in two-legged ties, with the semi-finals and final set to take place in March next year.

"The truth is that we did not have a good performance overall," Santos said. "Therefore, we have to say sorry. The Portuguese people are obviously sad. Not more than us, but just like us.

"But my team will be at the Qatar World Cup. That is guaranteed. We just have to compete in the play-offs which is not common for us. Portugal never went through a play-off with me, but they played it on three occasions and qualified for the finals in all of them.

"We will do it again. And I personally took part in a play-off, too. And I also qualified for the World Cup."

Serbia head coach Dragan Stojkovic insisted there is no limit to what the country can achieve after they qualified for the 2022 World Cup in dramatic fashion.

Aleksandar Mitrovic scored in the 90th minute to break Portugal's hearts as Serbia reached next year's showpiece tournament in Qatar thanks to a last-gasp 2-1 victory in Group A on Sunday.

Portugal only required a draw to earn automatic qualification and Cristiano Ronaldo's men were on track after Renato Sanches and Dusan Tadic traded first-half goals in Lisbon.

However, Serbia dominated and were rewarded when substitute Mitrovic headed home late as Portugal were relegated to the play-offs.

"We have no limit, we will analyse everything after this, and we did everything we did perfectly," Stojkovic said post-game.

"We showed in the end that we are better. We have the potential for much bigger things."

Serbia failed to qualify for Euro 2020 following a disappointing play-off defeat to Scotland.

Mitrovic – Serbia's all-time leading scorer – said: "I don't know what to say. I would cry and laugh at the same time. 

"Great victory, we came to Portugal to play football, to win. We were better, outplayed the opponent and deservedly celebrated."

Serbia captain Tadic, who equalised in the 33rd minute to cancel out Sanches' early opener, praised the impact of Stojkovic.

Stojkovic was appointed in March, replacing under-fire boss Mladen Krstajic.

"There are a lot of emotions at the moment and everyone is very happy and satisfied," Tadic added. "Since [Stojkovic] came, I think that a smile has returned and that we are playing beautiful football, which we showed today. 

"We showed that we can come to Portugal to dominate and win. I think that everyone who wears this coat of arms and who is a citizen of this country should be very happy and proud."

"Serbia should go to the World and European Championships continuously," Tadic said. "I hope that [Stojkovic] will stay for a long time and that Serbia will go to big competitions all the time."

Bernardo Silva apologised to Portugal fans following a dramatic 2-1 loss to Serbia in Lisbon on Sunday that left the Selecao facing a World Cup qualifying play-off.

Portugal only needed to avoid defeat in order to finish top of Group A and secure an automatic qualifying spot for the tournament in Qatar next year.

Renato Sanches' early strike put the hosts in the lead, but Dusan Tadic levelled and Aleksandar Mitrovic headed in a 90th-minute winner to seal sensationally seal Serbia's World Cup spot.

Manchester City midfielder Silva pulled no punches with his verdict on Portugal's performance.

"[It was a] terrible game for Portugal," Silva told O Jogo. "We managed to score the goal early, but then we stopped playing. Words fail me. We have to do more than we did today.

"We have a play-off, where we'll give our best. At home, with 65,000 people we had to do better. I want to apologise because they came to see a game they shouldn't have seen.

"The plan was to try to win the game. To have the ball. Something that didn't happen in any moment of the game. That at home and with the quality of our players is unacceptable. We have to see what failed and try to improve from there on."

Joao Palhinha agreed with Silva's assessment of the team's negative performance, but insisted they are good enough to qualify for the World Cup.

"We are here to take responsibility," Palhinha told RTP. "We didn't play a good game, we just defended in the second half and Serbia ended up having happiness in the final minutes, but [qualification is] still within our reach.

"Serbia played a good game, but we had the capacity and level to be superior. We are very sad, the dressing room is on the wane for not having achieved the direct qualification, but we have to go chasing them in the next games, because we have more than value to be in the World Cup.

"Life is not a constant of victories, all people who are successful in life go through difficulties and this feeling has to give us more strength."

Aleksandar Mitrovic's late winner saw Serbia seal their spot at the 2022 World Cup with a 2-1 victory over Portugal in Lisbon.

Portugal went ahead after just two minutes as Bernardo Silva capitalised on a defensive error to set up Renato Sanches, who opened the scoring with an unerring finish. 

Dusan Tadic's deflected strike levelled the scores later in the first half, with Rui Patricio partially culpable for allowing the ball to cross the line.

Substitute Mitrovic completed a dramatic turnaround in the 90th minute as he headed in from Tadic's cross to send Serbia top of Group A and condemn Portugal to the playoffs.

Portugal enjoyed a dream start as Silva dispossessed Nemanja Gudelj before finding Sanches, who advanced into the area and rifled past Predrag Rajkovic.

Dusan Vlahovic thought he had equalised 10 minutes later as he struck towards the bottom-right corner, but his left-footed effort bounced off the post and away from danger.

Serbia did draw level in the 33rd minute when Tadic's fierce strike from the edge of the area took a deflection, causing Patricio to fumble into his own net.

The hosts came within inches of reclaiming the lead after the interval as Sanches' blocked effort was cleared against Rajkovic's back and rolled just wide.

Serbia appeared surprisingly conservative in the second half but Mitrovic, who headed wide only minutes before, grabbed a dramatic winner with just a minute remaining of normal time as he nodded in at the back post from Tadic's cross to ensure his country's place at the World Cup.

Aleksandar Mitrovic's late winner saw Serbia seal their spot at the 2022 World Cup with a 2-1 victory over Portugal in Lisbon.

Portugal went ahead after just two minutes as Bernardo Silva capitalised on a defensive error to set up Renato Sanches, who opened the scoring with an unerring finish. 

Dusan Tadic's deflected strike levelled the scores later in the first half, with Rui Patricio partially culpable for allowing the ball to cross the line.

Substitute Mitrovic completed a dramatic turnaround in the 90th minute as he headed in from Tadic's cross to send Serbia top of Group A and condemn Portugal to the playoffs.

Portugal enjoyed a dream start as Silva dispossessed Nemanja Gudelj before finding Sanches, who advanced into the area and rifled past Predrag Rajkovic.

Dusan Vlahovic thought he had equalised 10 minutes later as he struck towards the bottom-right corner, but his left-footed effort bounced off the post and away from danger.

Serbia did draw level in the 33rd minute when Tadic's fierce strike from the edge of the area took a deflection, causing Patricio to fumble into his own net.

The hosts came within inches of reclaiming the lead after the interval as Sanches' blocked effort was cleared against Rajkovic's back and rolled just wide.

Serbia appeared surprisingly conservative in the second half but Mitrovic, who headed wide only minutes before, grabbed a dramatic winner with just a minute remaining of normal time as he nodded in at the back post from Tadic's cross to ensure his country's place at the World Cup.

Aleksandar Mitrovic's late winner saw Serbia seal their spot at the 2022 World Cup with a 2-1 win over Portugal in Lisbon.

Portugal went ahead after just two minutes as Bernardo Silva capitalised on a defensive error to set up Renato Sanches, who opened the scoring with an unerring finish. 

Dusan Tadic's deflected strike levelled the scores later in the first half, with Rui Patricio partially culpable for allowing the ball to cross the line.

Substitute Mitrovic completed a dramatic turnaround in the 90th minute as he headed in from Tadic's cross to send Serbia top of Group A and condemn Portugal to the playoffs.

The only similarity between Portugal and Brazil is that they will both have a 2022 World Cup spot secured by Sunday, according to Fernando Santos. 

Brazil booked their place in Qatar on Thursday with a 1-0 victory over Colombia, their 11th win in 12 qualifiers through which they have remained undefeated. 

Despite having accrued six points more than closest rivals Argentina, Tite's side receive regular criticism for a pragmatic approach and lack of flair. 

Portugal have come under fire for similar reasons during their World Cup qualifying campaign, with a 0-0 draw against the Republic of Ireland on Thursday doing little to assuage the frustration. 

A draw against Serbia at the Estadio da Luz on Sunday will be enough for Portugal to secure a place at the World Cup, which Santos believes would then be the only thing his team have in common with Brazil. 

Asked if he felt there were any similarities between Brazil and Portugal, Santos replied: "What I get from that question is that Brazil have qualified and that's what I believe will happen tomorrow with Portugal and we'll be present at the World Cup finals. Other than that, there is no comparison." 

Portugal were held to a 2-2 draw against Serbia in Belgrade back in March and will simply need to avoid defeat to seal top spot in Group A. 

The two teams have met five times since March 2015, with Portugal going unbeaten and claiming three wins.

"The idea cannot be to play for a draw. The two teams will try to win the game. That's what I think," said Santos. 

"I don't think it will be a game of patience. No team will play crazy, not even Serbia who need to win will play like that. 

"But Serbia always play to win. They won't be completely unbalanced. If they get unbalanced, they are taking more risks. 

"The two teams have great ability, but I believe Portugal will win the game." 

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos insisted there was little difference between a win and a draw against the Republic of Ireland as World Cup qualifying would still be decided against Serbia.

Santos' side were held to a goalless draw in Thursday's clash with Ireland, who have just one win to their name in World Cup qualifying.

The Euro 2016 winners had previously embarked on a five-game winning run across all competitions, scoring 16 times, but could manage just three shots on target in Dublin.

The stalemate leaves Portugal and Serbia both on 17 points with one game remaining and the top two will meet in Lisbon on Sunday in Group A's winner-takes-all decider.

Asked if he was happy with the result, Santos told RT3: "Naturally. In terms of qualification, winning 5-0 or drawing here was the same thing.

"Of course, I would have preferred to win 5-0, but the result is positive. Serbia have to play in our stadium to win the game.

"Obviously we wanted to win, we didn't want to draw, that's not what we came here for. They're a very aggressive and very physical opponent.

"In the attacking organisation, we let them create danger. The players tried but we always had difficulties – they were quick to close spaces."

Santos, who insisted he was "convinced" Portugal would still qualify, left out the likes of Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo for the visit to the Republic of Ireland.

He will also be without Pepe against Serbia after the centre-back was dismissed late on for two bookable offences.

Asked for clarification whether he had spared players to avoid yellow-card accumulated suspensions, Santos added: "I saved them because you never know if the players are conditioned or not.

"I wanted to have Pepe for the game, but I'm going to sleep well. We'll find the right players [for the Serbia game]."

Portugal were held to a goalless draw by the Republic of Ireland to leave Sunday's clash with Serbia as the decider for top spot in World Cup qualifying Group A.

Fernando Santos' men had scored 16 goals during their five-game winning streak across all competitions but could only muster two shots on target during a frustrating outing in Dublin.

Cristiano Ronaldo went the closest, though even the all-time leading scorer in men's international football could not break the deadlock in Thursday's clash.

The visitors, who saw Pepe dismissed late on for two bookable offences, and Serbia both sit on 17 points with one game remaining as the latter travel to Lisbon for a winner-takes-all decider.

Andre Silva forced the first save of the contest from Gavin Bazunu before Seamus Coleman's excellent last-ditch block denied Ronaldo as the visitors dominated the early proceedings.

However, the Republic of Ireland responded well and should have taken the lead on the stroke of half-time but Chiedozie Ogbene could only head over from close range.

Stephen Kenny's men continued industriously after the interval and almost punished Matheus Nunes' concentration lapse when Josh Cullen curled into Rui Patricio's hands.

Ronaldo, who later fired narrowly off target, then nodded wide following Silva's cross before the hosts saw Enda Stevens whip over from Ogbene's inviting delivery.

The visitors, who had Pepe dismissed for a second bookable offence after catching Callum Robinson with his hand, managed to hold on for a point despite the hosts thinking they had found a late winner through Matt Doherty, Will Keane's foul on Patricio cutting short the celebrations.

Europe's qualifying section for the 2022 World Cup reaches its dramatic climax over the next week, with eight more nations set to secure their places in Qatar.

There will be 50 matches played during this international window, during which the outcome of all 10 groups will be decided, with Denmark and Germany the only European nations to have already booked their tickets.

Indeed, the other eight group winners will seal automatic qualification for Qatar 2022, while another 10 nations will advance to March's play-offs as the runners-up.

The 10 second-placed teams will be joined by the two best group winners from the 2020-21 Nations League who have neither already qualified nor sealed a play-off spot via the group stage.

With plenty of excitement and drama guaranteed, Stats Perform takes a closer look at the most eye-catching fixtures, permutations and milestones.  

800 up for Ronaldo?

Another day and another milestone approaches for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is just two goals away from taking his career tally to 800.

The Portugal skipper could hit the landmark when his country face the Republic of Ireland on Thursday – failing that, they host Serbia three days later.

Should Portugal take maximum points at the Aviva Stadium, Fernando Santos’ men would then guarantee top spot in Group A by avoiding defeat against Serbia on Sunday.

 

Deja vu for Italy?

The reigning European champions missed out on the finals last time around, sparking a cultural reset that ultimately culminated in their brilliant Euro 2020 success earlier this year. But their place in Qatar is still far from secure.

Level on points with Switzerland at the top of Group C with two games remaining, the Azzurri must beat the Swiss when they face off on Friday and avoid defeat against Northern Ireland three days later to guarantee qualification. 

Four years ago they were fell to Sweden in the play-offs – failure this time around would be an even bigger shock.

Work to do for the Dutch

The Netherlands were also absent from Russia in 2018 and, despite leading Group G, they are not home and dry just yet.

Louis van Gaal’s side travel to Montenegro on Saturday while second-placed Norway host Latvia.

Just two points separate the top two, who lock horns at De Kuip on Tuesday in a game that will more than likely decide who wins the group.

Spain to avert Swede success?

The 2010 World Cup winners are not yet guaranteed a top-two finish in Group B, although they will be by avoiding defeat away to Greece on Thursday.

Spain are two points behind leaders Sweden, who travel to Georgia on the same day. They go head-to-head in what will surely be the group decider on Sunday, assuming they take maximum points three days earlier. 

 

France looking to avoid the Blues

The reigning world champions and recently crowned Nations League winners are not quite over the line in Group D, despite holding a three-point advantage and game in hand over second-placed Ukraine.

However, Les Bleus will secure top spot with a win over Kazakhstan on Saturday or, failing that, taking maximum points away to Finland on Tuesday. 

Who will top Group H?

Russia and Croatia are guaranteed top-two finishes in Group H, but with just two points separating them, the identity of the group winners is still very much up in the air.

After facing Cyprus and Malta respectively on Thursday, the two nations collide in Split on Sunday with one of them booking a place in Qatar and the other heading for the play-offs.

Second place up for grabs in Group J

Eight points clear of the chasing pack in Group J, Germany secured qualification with flying colours. But the battle for second place is not quite as straightforward.

Occupying second are Romania (13 points), followed closely by North Macedonia and Armenia (both 12), while Iceland (eight) still have an outside chance as well.

Armenia and North Macedonia face off on Thursday with Romania hosting Iceland.

The group then reaches its climax three days later as North Macedonia and Iceland lock horns, while Armenia host Germany and Romania travel to Liechtenstein – expect a rollercoaster ride in Group J!

Agent Jorge Mendes claims his client Cristiano Ronaldo "has never deserved the Ballon d'Or more" following his individual achievements at club and international level.

The Portugal star returned to Manchester United from Juventus after a successful year in terms of individual records, including becoming the all-time international top scorer while also finishing as the leading marksman in Serie A in 2020-21.

The veteran forward has continued to be prolific for United this term, scoring five goals in just six appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils.

Ronaldo was less successful on the team front as Juventus saw their grip on the Italian top-flight broken, finishing fourth, while also being knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16, and Portugal lost to Belgium at the same stage of the Euro 2020 finals.

However, Mendes feels the 36-year-old's remarkable personal achievements should make him the frontrunner for the coveted accolade.

"The numbers and statistics attached to Cristiano Ronaldo's name speak for themselves and should be enough for him to win another Ballon d'Or," Mendes told France Football.

"The absolutely remarkable total of 115 goals for the Portuguese national team makes him the record holder in the history of men's international football. This year he broke that 15-year-old record, to which he can add that of the top scorer in the history of professional football.

 

"All these achievements, which represent the greatest performance in football history, should be pivotal in awarding the trophy, as he continues to demonstrate that he is, without doubt, the best world football player of all time.

"It is true that this is an individual trophy, but let's not forget that Cristiano Ronaldo was the top scorer in the demanding Serie A and was also the top scorer in the last European Championship [making him the all-time top scorer in that competition].

"He holds the record for goals in the Champions League and is the only player in the world to have won everything in three different countries with maximum competitiveness, as was the case in England, Italy and Spain.

"All this at the age of 36, with an absolutely unique regularity, commitment and a phenomenal capacity to overcome difficulties. In my opinion, this year the Ballon d'Or has a name: Cristiano Ronaldo. For me, he has never deserved it more."

Ronaldo faces stern competition if he is to win a sixth Ballon d'Or, however, with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski netting the most goals in all club competitions among players in Europe's top five leagues last season (48, 12 more than Ronaldo) and he has already managed 13 this term.

Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi also outscored the Portugal star in all club competitions last season, and Messi claimed an international trophy with Argentina as he won the Copa America, finishing the tournament as the top scorer and top assist provider.

Meanwhile, midfielder Jorginho is being tipped as a contender after winning the Champions League with Chelsea and Euro 2020 with Italy.

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