Barcelona and Spain midfielder Pedri has won the Kopa Trophy at the Ballon d'Or ceremony after a superb year for club and country.

The award is presented to the best player under the age of 21, with Pedri only turning 19 on November 25.

Pedri, who enjoyed a fine season with Barca before leading Spain to the semi-finals at Euro 2020 and featuring in the country's run to an Olympic silver medal, was also named on the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or, finishing 24th in the overall rankings.

"The best way to celebrate turning 19 is receiving this award," Pedri said as he collected the trophy. "I'd like to thank everyone at Barcelona for helping me [get] here."

Pedri beat out Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, who finished second. His Dortmund team-mate Giovanni Reyna came ninth.

Bellingham has become a star at Dortmund following his move from Birmingham City, establishing himself as a regular in Gareth Southgate's England squad.

More Bundesliga stars featured the top 10, with Jamal Musiala of Bayern Munich coming third and Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz ranking seventh.

English pair Mason Greenwood and Bukayo Saka – of Manchester United and Arsenal – finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch and Renne's Jeremy Doku shared eighth place, while Paris Saint-Germain left-back Nuno Mendes was fourth.

Barcelona and Spain midfielder Pedri has won the Trophee Kopa at the Ballon d'Or ceremony after a superb year for club and country.

The award is presented to the best player under the age of 21, with Pedri only turning 19 on November 25.

Pedri, who enjoyed a fine season with Barca before leading Spain to the semi-finals at Euro 2020 and featuring in the country's run to an Olympic silver medal, was also named on the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or, finishing 24th in the overall rankings.

"The best way to celebrate turning 19 is receiving this award," Pedri said as he collected the trophy. "I'd like to thank everyone at Barcelona for helping me [get] here."

Pedri beat out Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, who finished second. His Dortmund team-mate Giovanni Reyna came ninth.

Bellingham has become a star at Dortmund following his move from Birmingham City, establishing himself as a regular in Gareth Southgate's England squad.

More Bundesliga stars featured the top 10, with Jamal Musiala of Bayern Munich coming third and Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz ranking seventh.

English pair Mason Greenwood and Bukayo Saka – of Manchester United and Arsenal – finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch and Renne's Jeremy Doku shared eighth place, while Paris Saint-Germain left-back Nuno Mendes was fourth.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic acknowledged his shoulder charge on Cesar Azpilicueta was stupid but insisted he would "100 per cent" do it again. 

In the closing stages of Sweden's 1-0 defeat to Spain this month, which meant they would have to go through the play-offs to reach the 2022 World Cup, Ibrahimovic steamed into Azpilicueta and sent him flying to the ground. 

The veteran striker was shown a yellow card that has ruled him out of Sweden's play-off semi-final in March. 

But Ibrahimovic felt it was important for him to stand up for a team-mate and teach the Chelsea defender a lesson. It is not a decision he would change if he had his time again. 

"The other day in the national team, I gave a tackle to [Azpilicueta]. I did it on purpose. I'm not ashamed to say it because he did something stupid to my player. Acting big to my player," Ibrahimovic told The Guardian. 

"It was a stupid thing but I would still do it to make him understand: 'You don’t f****** do that. You don't have balls to do it against me. But I will show you what happens if you do it to me.' That’s why I did it. 

"It's not about missing the play-offs. It's about making the guy understand you don't take the p*** out of somebody laying [on the ground]. You don't attack a dog that doesn't talk. Attack the one able to do something. It's too easy to pick on my team-mates who are 20 years old and very nice guys. I hope he understands now. 

"I'm not afraid to say it to you. I did a stupid thing. [But] I will do it again. 100 per cent. 

"That is what I say about being 'perfect'. Being myself is perfect for me. I don't need filters to ask them what kind of questions you will give me." 

Asked if Azpilicueta had said anything to him after the game, Ibrahimovic replied: "What can he say? He will not say it to me but he will say it to my player – who will do nothing because he's too nice. 

"It was not a good thing by me, but I would still do it. That's me. I'm not ashamed to say it." 

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.

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.

Luis Enrique said Spain's automatic qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has "taken a big weight" off his shoulders.

Alvaro Morata's late goal helped Spain clinch a 1-0 win over Sweden in Seville on Sunday and secured top spot in Group B of European qualifying.

Sweden will go into a play-off next March to reach the tournament while Spain can begin preparations for their 12th consecutive World Cup finals.

Only Brazil (all 21), Germany (18) and Argentina (13) have qualified for more consecutive tournaments than Spain, who have reached every finals since 1978.

"Today has been a very beautiful day. We have suffered a lot, but the players have had faith and have taken their deserved prize," Spain head coach Luis Enrique told a media conference.

"It is an excellent group of players. Not only the 25 who are here but all those who have been coming. 

"We are already in the World Cup and to be honest I have taken a big weight off my shoulders.

"I have felt much more pressure in these last games than in the European Championships or in the Nations League. 

"When you have to achieve something that seems easy or you have to do it because of history, you put pressure on yourself.

"We have worked on the psychological aspect and we have transmitted to the players the necessary confidence. We have generated enough to win the game."

Morata has played 50 games for Spain in all competitions since his debut in November 2014 against Belarus and since then he has netted 23 goals for La Roja.

His winner against Sweden after coming on as a substitute means he has 10 more goals than any of his compatriots during that time and Luis Enrique hailed his impact for La Roja.

He said: "There is not a player that represents more than Morata overcoming adversity and criticism. 

"Morata is always available to help. He is a very versatile player."

Morata acknowledged it is unthinkable for Spain, who won the World Cup in 2010, to not qualify for the tournament.

"Spain has to be in all the World Cups," Morata told RTVE.

"We have worked a lot to achieve the goal.  We have also had bad times together, now every time there are more nerves and more emotion.

"I needed to qualify for the World Cup and win, we are a great group and we deserve to be in the World Cup and we will be there."

Spain qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after a tense 1-0 victory over Sweden that was secured by Alvaro Morata's late winner.

Sweden needed to win in Seville on Sunday to top Group B but will go into the play-offs instead after Luis Enrique's home side saw out a nervy final match of their qualifying campaign to clinch the automatic spot.

Emil Forsberg had two clear-cut goalscoring opportunities for Sweden at the Estadio La Cartuja but was unable to test Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon.

Morata gave Spain victory with a close-range strike on the rebound with four minutes of the game left after Dani Olmo had seen his effort hit the crossbar.

Luis Enrique wants the home crowd to be the difference for Spain against Sweden in their final qualifier for the 2022 World Cup on Sunday.

La Roja moved top of Group B after beating Greece 1-0 on Thursday, taking advantage of Sweden's shock 2-0 defeat in Georgia.

A first-half penalty from Pablo Sarabia was enough to secure victory for Spain in Athens and meant they now have their fate in their own hands, needing just a point to secure qualification for Qatar 2022.

Speaking before the crucial game in Seville, Luis Enrique said: "It is very important to focus on the difficulties we can expect, which will be many. They defend very well. I hope that [the fans] will help us in the delicate moments.

"This will not be a party until the game is over. Our job is to close with a victory, but they are a rival and that will not be easy."

Spain and Sweden drew 0-0 in the group stages of Euro 2020 earlier this year, while the Swedes won the reverse game in World Cup qualifying 2-1 in September, and Luis Enrique was asked if he intends to change his approach this time.

"I am not going to change anything beyond nuances. Sweden defends very well and at the top they have fast people, which causes problems against you. 

"In the European Championship we were better, and I don't think we deserved the defeat in Stockholm. But football does not know about merits or justice, it only knows about results. That is why we need the public because with them, we are stronger and they are weaker."

The Spain head coach was also asked about Zlatan Ibrahimovic and whether he would prefer to see the legendary striker on the pitch on Sunday.

"That's your problem, that of Sweden and its coach, not mine. I have never met Ibra. I don't know him," Luis Enrique added.

"The truth is that with Ibra the direct game improves, but that is only part of the attack. Ibra boosts Sweden's long game, but we'll see if he comes out when they give his line-up. If he plays we will try to deactivate him, but 100 per cent it will be impossible."

Luis Enrique insisted Spain will be going for the win against Sweden on Sunday even though a draw would be sufficient for his team to win Group B and qualify for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

Spain moved top of the group after beating Greece 1-0 in Athens, taking advantage of Sweden surprisingly losing 2-0 in Georgia earlier on Thursday.

A first-half penalty from Pablo Sarabia was enough to secure victory for La Roja and means Spain now have their fate in their own hands, but Luis Enrique said they will still go for the three points when they host Sweden in Seville in their final group game.

"On Sunday we will go out to win as we do every game against a very difficult opponent, but one that we know very well," Spain head coach Luis Enrique told reporters.

"I hope that the fans will be the 12th player for us."

Luis Enrique was happy with how his team played in Greece and said that he saw improvements from the home side from their first meeting in the group, despite the fact that the reverse game in March finished 1-1.

"Greece has improved a lot since the first game we played in Spain," he added. "Thanks to the attitude and effort of my players, we have taken the game forward against a very hard-working team.

"I think we could have played better. We had a first part of control in which we neutralised their attack.

"I was happy with the attitude of the team. They have not been gripped, which in these games is not easy.

"The players have done a great job, they have overcome difficulties and are ambitious.

"We have a positive dynamic. There are always things to improve, but that we receive support is due to the effort of the team."

Luis Enrique allayed fears about Gavi after the teenage midfielder came off in the second half with what appeared to be a facial injury, saying that he is "fine". The Barcelona starlet was impressive once again, completing 100 per cent of his 43 passes, including 32 in the opposition half.

Spain's game against Sweden will be played at Estadio La Cartuja in Seville, and Luis Enrique emphasised again he wants the fans to roar his team over the line on Sunday.

"In my time as a player we qualified for a World Cup against Denmark in Seville. I don't remember a similar game in my career in which the fans carried us like that day," he said, recalling the qualifier for the 1994 World Cup against Denmark, which Spain won 1-0.

"La Cartuja has to bounce."

Spain have World Cup qualification in their own hands going into the final round of games after winning 1-0 in Greece.

Luis Enrique's side took advantage of a surprise slip from previous Group B leaders Sweden, who lost 2-0 in Georgia earlier on Thursday, to leapfrog them into first place.

Spain had never lost away to Greece in four previous meetings, and a first-half penalty from Pablo Sarabia increased that record to four wins and one draw.

They will book their place at Qatar 2022 if they can avoid defeat to Sweden on Sunday in Seville.

The visitors unsurprisingly dominated possession but created little early on against a well-organised Greece.

The home side thought they had taken the lead on 21 minutes as Giorgos Masouras finished well from a Thanasis Androutsos throughball, but the Olympiakos forward was offside.

Just three minutes later, Spain were awarded a penalty after Inigo Martinez was felled in the box by Dimitris Giannoulis following a corner, and Sarabia sent Odisseas Vlachodimos the wrong way to put La Roja ahead.

The hosts needed a win to keep alive any hopes of qualification themselves and started to gamble a little more towards the end of the game, but Spain remained relatively calm as they eased to a vital win in Athens.

Spain boss Luis Enrique insisted no amount of pressure could affect him ahead of his side's key World Cup qualifier against Greece.

The 2010 world champions are in action in Athens on Friday, with an automatic place at Qatar 2022 potentially on the line.

Should Sweden defeat Georgia in the earlier Group B match, Spain will be unable to catch them in top spot if they do not take all three points against Greece.

John van't Schip's side could still clinch a top-two finish if they beat La Roja, whom they held to a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in March.

Yet Luis Enrique does not believe the fear of missing out on a guaranteed place at next year's finals will disrupt their preparation. 

"Luis Enrique was born with pressure," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I've been dealing with pressure since I was 18 years old and I feel comfortable.

"After seeing how the team is training, I can only convey the confidence they give me.

"We've had pressure for every game. I haven't looked for an example in any other game.

"Greece are a really well organised team, that's the truth. In the reverse game we created few chances, fewer than we wanted. They play well and that's why we have to be good in pressing.

"I'll sign now for a game in which we keep the opposition trapped in their box."

For Spain, the game has been compared to their Euro 2020 group match against Slovakia, when a 5-0 win sent them through to the knockouts behind Sweden after they drew their opening two games.

If they win, they will head into their final game against Sweden knowing that finishing top of their group is still in their own hands.

"It's only one game," said Luis Enrique. "We're not going to make the mistake of thinking it's Sweden. We'll think about Greece – nothing else exists.

"Spain are obliged to try to win every game. The obligation is to win every game and to do it with our weapons. There's always pressure to win.

"I'm really lucky, because after seeing the two training sessions at Las Rozas, I'm more than optimistic. The belief, the rhythm, the quality they have... I feel more than confident and calm when preparing and evaluating this game.

"I'm very fortunate to be the coach of a country that has at least 60 players of international standard, at least for me."

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!

Xavi's Barcelona tenure has not yet officially started, but the Blaugrana's new coach may have to cope with a lengthy absence for one of the club's star players after Ansu Fati suffered an apparent hamstring injury.

Barca confirmed on Saturday that legendary midfielder Xavi had returned to take over as Ronald Koeman's replacement.

Xavi, whose contract with Qatar Stars League team Al Sadd was terminated on Friday, will be officially presented on Monday and his first game in charge will be a derby against Espanyol.

However, he seems set to be without youngster Fati, who was forced off just before half-time against Celta Vigo on Saturday, having pulled up clutching his left thigh.

Fati had been enjoying a brilliant game, putting Barca ahead early on with a fantastic finish from a tight angle. Sergio Busquets and Memphis Depay subsequently scored to make it 3-0 at the time of the winger's injury.

The teenager only returned to action in September, having endured a long injury lay off due to a serious knee problem that kept him out for the majority of the 2020-21 campaign.

His goal at Celta was his third in LaLiga this season, from just his fifth appearance in the competition, while he has also scored once from three Champions League games.

Fati's injury will also present a blow to Spain coach and former Barca boss Luis Enrique, who had named the forward in his squad for crucial World Cup qualifiers against Greece and Sweden over the next two weeks.

Luis Enrique welcomed the imminent appointment of Xavi as head coach of Barcelona but doubts he can offer any worthy advice to the Camp Nou legend.

The long-awaited return of Xavi now appears a formality after Al Sadd announced Barcelona had agreed to buy the 41-year-old out of his contract.

Spanish newspaper Sport has reported Barcelona and Xavi are planning to split the cost of buying the coach out of that deal with the Qatar Stars League team.

Barcelona have encountered major financial problems but are optimistic Xavi will be the man who leads a turnaround of their fortunes on the pitch.

Heading into this weekend, they sit ninth in LaLiga after 11 games, having won just four times in the competition. A trip to face Celta Vigo in their test on Saturday, with Xavi reportedly set to be presented on Monday.

Spain boss Luis Enrique played for Barcelona from 1996 to 2004, overlapping with the early years of Xavi's playing career, and later coached the team from 2014 to 2017, winning a stack of trophies including two LaLiga titles and a Champions League.

"It was almost an announced rumour that Xavi would have the chance to come back to his home. Hopefully he will have a great time there, hopefully he will be able to win many things with Barcelona," Luis Enrique said at a news conference on Friday, after announcing Spain's squad for their upcoming international fixtures.

"It's true that I have been in the dressing room at lot at Barcelona, but also at ​​Sporting [Gijon] and Real Madrid. And as a coach I've also been in many dressing rooms.

"But in this one, specifically, Xavi has been there much more than me. I think he will almost be able to give me tips."

Xavi played 767 games for Barcelona, which is a tally only beaten by Lionel Messi (778), whose close-season exit to Paris Saint-Germain has left Barcelona reeling.

In all, Xavi won LaLiga eight times and the Champions League on four occasions before ending his long association with the club in 2015, having played in a treble-winning campaign under Luis Enrique.

Now Xavi is heading back to the Catalan giants, reportedly on an early morning flight from Qatar on Saturday, and is already being portrayed as a saviour.

There could be bumps along the way, given Barcelona's current crop of players does not match up favourably against the teams that Xavi played in while previously with the Blaugrana.

Al Sadd even referred to the "critical stage" at Barcelona as they announced Xavi's exit.

Luis Enrique said: "I hope it goes very well for him and that he can achieve many things with a club as big as Barca."

Luis Enrique lauded Spain "pillar" Sergio Busquets after his exploits in the country's trophy-less Nations League Finals campaign.

Spain fell short in Sunday's Nations League final, beaten 2-1 by reigning world champions France at San Siro in Milan.

Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe cancelled out Mikel Oyarzabal's 64th-minute opener and while Spain were left emptyhanded, veteran captain Busquets produced another impressive display in the middle of the nation's rebuilding project.

Busquets provided his 10th assist for Spain and first since November 2019 having teed up Oyarzabal, while the 33-year-old captain led the team in tackles (four) and total duels (17) after finishing with a 92.2 per cent passing accuracy – only bettered by Eric Garcia for La Roja.

"Busquets has been named the best player of the tournament. That says a lot about his level. He's vital for us. He's the captain, but not only that," Luis Enrique said during his post-match news conference.

"He's also somebody who gives some values off the pitch and on the pitch. He gives you calmness, quietness. He's our pillar on which our defensive and attacking game are based.

"How much we've won, I don't know, but I know we were able to win against the European champions and play almost evenly with the world champions, so for the players and the team, that is all good.

"And of course, every time it will be more difficult for me to make the next selection, and that is good for me and good for us. The important thing is the team maintains its personality and will to win."

Spain ended the decider with 63.9 per cent possession and 624 passes, compared to France's 354 total passes.

Luis Enrique's Spain were left to rue a missed opportunity, having lost to eventual champions Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 semi-finals.

"Nothing was missing. It was a shame that once we scored that opening goal, that France went up the other end. It was a shame to concede when we just scored, because that's when France were at their weakest. That's the only regret we can have," the former Barcelona boss added.

"What are we missing? We're not missing anything at all. We still need to keep that same confidence, and we need to try press ahead with what we've been doing." 

"As usual, no matter who we're playing against, Spain will always play its game," Luis Enrique said. "Sometimes we play a bit better than other times, but that's normal. But I think all fans would agree that Spain always plays the same way. No matter where, no matter against whom. So I am satisfied with what I have seen this tournament."

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