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

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

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

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

 

How will the draw work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

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

Luck of the draw!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The 2022 World Cup is now less than eight months away and the excitement will ramp up another notch on Friday when the draw takes place in Doha.

Qatar will become the first Arab country to host the global showpiece, 92 years after the inaugural event in Uruguay, in what is the 22nd edition of football's biggest tournament.

It will become the smallest host nation by area, with matches to be spread across five different cities, making this the most concentrated edition since Argentina 1978.

Twenty-nine nations have already booked their finals spot, 22 of which competed at the 2018 edition, with the automatically-qualified hosts the only side to make their debut.

Due to the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the fate of eight teams remains in the balance – only three of whom can still advance.

Wales will face the winners of the Scotland versus Ukraine play-off in June, while New Zealand take on Costa Rica and Peru meet either Australia or the United Arab Emirates.

To further whet the appetite ahead of Friday's draw, Stats Perform looks at some key questions to be answered with the aid of Opta data.

 


Will Europe continue to dominate?

The past four World Cups have been won by European teams: Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, Germany in 2014 and France in 2018.

That is the longest run of victories for a single continent in the tournament's history, with only one defeated finalist – Argentina in 2014 – coming from outside of Europe.

Indeed, a European team has triumphed in 12 of the previous 21 editions, with South America responsible for the other nine victors.

France are the reigning champions and are aiming to become the third team to retain the trophy after Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962).

However, a word of warning for Les Bleus – the past three defending champions have been eliminated in the group stage (Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018).

 


No Italy, but will it be a familiar winner?

Despite that, France will be fancied by many having reached the final in half of the past six World Cups –1998, 2006 and 2018 – which is more than any other country.

Another World Cup heavyweight will not be present in Qatar, though, as four-time winners Italy – only Brazil (five) have won more trophies – missed out in the play-offs.

Speaking of Brazil, they are taking part in their 22nd World Cup, making them the only team to have featured in every edition of FIFA's showpiece competition.

Like Italy, Germany have won four titles and they have reached the semi-finals on four of the past five occasions, which is double the number of any other team in that period.

No matter how strong a side, a perfect tournament is tough to come by – only Brazil in 1970 and 2002 have achieved that since the 1930s, when teams played just four games.


Or is it a chance for someone new to shine?

Canada will play in their first World Cup since 1986; that gap of 36 years the longest between appearances among teams confirmed to be taking part in this year's event.

Egypt and Norway had the longest gap at 56 years, though Wales will break that should they advance from their play-off to qualify for the first time since 1958 (64 years).

Qatar are the only new face and will aim to avoid becoming just the second hosts to be eliminated in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

Mexico will also have their sights set on the knockout stages, though no side has played as many games (57) as them without reaching the final.

Netherlands, meanwhile, have reached the final on more occasions (1974, 1978 and 2010) without lifting the coveted trophy than anyone else.

 


Can Ronaldo and Muller set new records?

Cristiano Ronaldo will appear at a record-equalling fifth World Cup and is out to become the first player ever to score in five different editions.

The Portugal forward has seven World Cup goals in total, nine short of the record held by Miroslav Klose, who netted all 16 of his goals from inside the penalty area.

Thomas Muller has an outside chance of catching countryman Klose in Qatar, having scored 10 times across his three previous participations – no active player has more.

The top scorer in a single World Cup is Just Fontaine, who scored 13 times in 1958, including a goal in all six of France's games.

Not since Gerd Muller in 1970, with 10 goals for Germany, has a player reached double figures in a single edition. Brazil great Ronaldo's eight in 2002 is the highest since then.

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

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

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

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

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

 

How will the draw work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

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

Luck of the draw!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup is all but over.

Some key matches still have to be played, with Wales yet to find out their fate as they wait to face the winner of Scotland's play-off with Ukraine, which has been postponed due to Russia's invasion of the country, while there are inter-confederation play-offs also to be decided.

In total, 28 nations have qualified already, and most of football's star names will be present.

That being said, while France's world champions will bid to defend their crown, Neymar will bring the Brazilian stardust, Lionel Messi will look to build on Argentina's Copa America triumph and Cristiano Ronaldo will feature at a record-equalling fifth tournament, some huge players - and indeed teams, in the case of Italy - will not be present in Qatar.

Stats Perform has looked at some of the star players who will be watching the tournament from home.

Mohamed Salah (Egypt)

Arguably the best player in the world this season, Salah will not be lighting up Qatar with any mazy runs or sensational strikes. Given the tournament is in the middle of next season, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp may secretly be pleased his talisman will not be risking injury or fatigue, but Salah – who blazed his penalty over in the decisive shoot-out against Senegal on Tuesday – will be a big miss.

 

James Rodriguez (Colombia)

A star of the 2014 World Cup, in which he won the golden boot, James Rodriguez scored Colombia's winner against Venezuela on Tuesday, yet Peru's victory over Paraguay meant the ex-Real Madrid playmaker and his team-mates will not appear in Qatar, where James currently plies his trade for Al-Rayyan.

Luis Diaz, who has made a flying start to life at Liverpool since joining from Porto in January, is another Colombian talent who will be watching on from the sidelines.

Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy)

The hero of Italy's Euro 2020 triumph with his saves in the penalty shoot-out victory over England last July, Donnarumma – one of Europe's best goalkeepers – will be watching on from afar along with the rest of Roberto Mancini's players. After his error in Paris Saint-Germain's capitulation against Madrid in the Champions League, March has been a sour month for the 23-year-old.

Georgio Chiellini (Italy)

While Donnarumma has time on his side to make it to the next World Cup, the same cannot be said for Giorgio Chiellini. The centre-back is 37 and will surely not be featuring at another major tournament for Italy now.

Defensive partner Leonardo Bonucci may also fall into that category, given he turns 35 in May, while 29-year-old playmaker Marco Verratti may also have seen his final chance of appearing at the World Cup for a second time dashed.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)

It was the battle of two of Europe's leading marksmen of the last decade on Tuesday, as Poland went head-to-head with Sweden, and it was Robert Lewandowski and Co. who came out on top, winning 2-0.

Bayern Munich star Lewandowski opened the scoring from the penalty spot, and though Ibrahimovic came on as a late substitute, he could not turn the tide in Sweden's favour. The Milan striker has suggested he wants to carry on playing for his country, but at 40, surely this was his last chance of appearing at a World Cup.

Erling Haaland (Norway)

Although Ibrahimovic may be approaching the tail-end of his career, Haaland is certainly not. Yet like the Swede, the Borussia Dortmund forward will not be playing in Qatar either.

Indeed, even if Norway had made it through their qualification group, it is uncertain as to whether or not the players would have chosen to boycott the tournament, having previously made their feelings on Qatar's human rights record clear. But they finished third in Group G anyway.

Arsenal playmaker Martin Odegaard is another bright Norweigian talent, though the Scandinavian nation may well fancy their chances heading towards Euro 2024 and the 2026 World Cup.

 

David Alaba (Austria)

Madrid defender Alaba could not inspire Austria to victory in their play-off clash with Wales, with Gareth Bale's double doing the damage. After a glittering career with Bayern, Alaba is on course to win LaLiga with Los Blancos, but any form of real, tangible success on the international stage looks set to avoid him.

Jan Oblak (Slovenia)

Oblak's form has dipped this season for Atletico Madrid but on his day he is still right up there among the world's best goalkeepers, though he could not help Slovenia finish higher than fourth in their qualification group, as their wait to qualify for a first World Cup since 2010 rolled on.

It's almost taken for granted that the best players in football appear at the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup.

But look a little closer, and we can see that is just not the case. Every four years there are a handful of big names who miss out, usually those born to countries without the same footballing pedigree as the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain.

There are even countless greats who, down the years, have failed to register a single appearance at a World Cup finals. Either they've been something of an anomaly in terms of the quality available to their country at a given time, injury has struck, or the coach simply hasn't picked them. Alfredo di Stefano, Ryan Giggs, George Best, Eric Cantona all enjoyed illustrious careers without playing in a World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski have at least all appeared at previous editions of the tournament, so this week's qualifying climax in Europe isn't exactly the only opportunity they have to ensure they represent their respective countries on the grandest stage.

But, given their ages, it has to be considered likely that Qatar 2022 will be the last World Cup at which any of them appear.

Waiting to make their mark

Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski have, obviously, enjoyed incredible careers. At club and international level, both have titles and records practically coming out of their ears.

Lewandowski already has more caps (128) and goals (74) for Poland than anyone else ever, while Ibrahimovic is Sweden's all-time top scorer (62).

Historically, both strikers are their respective nations' most-recognisable footballers, and surely the most talented they've ever produced.

Yet, one cannot say either of them has ever caused much of a stir at a World Cup.

Of course, neither Ibrahimovic nor Lewandowski has ever played in a senior international team that would be considered a challenger for major honours – in fact, each of them has only ever featured at one World Cup.

Ibrahimovic was a part of the Sweden team that got to the last 16 of the 2006 edition, while Lewandowski made his World Cup bow four years ago in Russia.

Sweden coach Janne Andersson opted against offering Ibrahimovic a way out of international retirement ahead of the 2018 World Cup, but he did eventually return in March last year. He will be 41 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around in November.

Lewandowski will be 34, so it's by no means outside the realm of possibility that he'll make an appearance in 2026, particularly if we look at Ibrahimovic's longevity.

But there won't be room for both of them in Qatar. Tuesday's play-off final in Chorzow pits Poland and Sweden against each other for the right to secure passage to the finals and what could be a last World Cup appearance for one of these two all-time greats.

No one will be expecting Sweden or Poland to go deep into the tournament, given neither has been beyond the last eight since 1994. But it would seem a travesty if players as good as Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic never managed to score at a World Cup.

Primed for World Cup number five, unless…

While Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski are still waiting to make a memorable impact at a World Cup, Ronaldo will be featuring at a fifth assuming he and Portugal qualify.

Ronaldo first appeared at the 2006 World Cup, something few England fans will forget given his role in Wayne Rooney's sending-off during their quarter-final tussle. Portugal went on to win 3-1 on penalties after a 0-0 draw, with Ronaldo netting the decisive spot-kick.

They finished fourth that year, but in the three tournaments since, Portugal haven't got beyond the last 16.

While Portugal's success at Euro 2016 means Ronaldo should never have his international legacy questioned in future, that World Cup record must be something he is keen to improve.

Additionally, Qatar 2022 looks likely to be the last time a certain rivalry can dominate headlines in a major tournament.

Lionel Messi has already helped Argentina secure a place and, given their 30-match unbeaten run and the fact they head to Qatar as South American champions, there's every reason to expect La Albiceleste will be an entirely different proposition compared to the team at Russia 2018.

While Messi and Ronaldo have shown signs of decline this term at club level, they remain fundamental for their respective national teams – but this surely won't be the case in 2026.

Qatar 2022 should offer Ronaldo the chance to boost his World Cup goals record of seven in 17 games. While by no means poor, a player of such self-belief will surely be aiming for more.

 

Those leading the way appear out of reach, barring an utterly freak showing from Ronaldo. Miroslav Klose (16) holds the record for most World Cup goals, while the 'other/original/Brazilian' Ronaldo is just behind on 15. Then there are other greats Gerd Muller (14), Just Fontaine (13) and Pele (12).

Reaching double figures would seem a realistic target and at least put him in great company, with only 13 players reaching 10 World Cup goals in the tournament's history.

Similarly, that would also make him Portugal's most-prolific World Cup player, with Eusebio currently holding that record thanks to his nine strikes, all of which came in 1966.

Of course, it's by no means a given that Ronaldo or Portugal will make it. Up next for them on Tuesday in their play-off final are North Macedonia.

Fernando Santos' side will undoubtedly favour themselves, but North Macedonia have already shocked European champions Italy – who's to say they can't stun Portugal as well?

Will it be Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane? Italy or Portugal – or indeed neither? Can Canada end their long wait, and are the United States and Australia at risk of missing out?

Those questions and plenty more are set to be answered over the next week or so as World Cup qualifying concludes for many nations.

Just 15 of the 32 participants have so far been confirmed for Qatar 2022, leaving 48 teams battling for the 17 remaining spots.

Fourteen more countries will be assured of a finals berth come the end of next week in what is very much crunch time for those still in contention.

Stats Perform looks at the key talking points.

Egypt seeking revenge in AFCON final repeat

Less than two months on from meeting in the Africa Cup of Nations final, Egypt and Senegal face off over two legs for a place in Qatar.

Senegal prevailed in a penalty shoot-out to claim their first AFCON crown and, buoyed by that triumph, will consider themselves as favourites here.

While both teams boast an array of top-class talent, this fixture is being billed as a showdown between Liverpool team-mates Salah and Mane.

The two biggest stars in African football, only one of the pair will be part of the World Cup later this year – and neither will fancy watching it all unfold from home.

This is not the only grudge match taking place in the CAF section over the next week and a half, as fierce rivals Ghana and Nigeria will also face off in a two-legged play-off.

Cameroon are up against Algeria, Mali take on Tunisia and DR Congo meet Morocco in the other three ties, each of which will be concluded on March 29.

European heavyweights on collision course

Since the play-off draw in the UEFA section took place in November, all talk has centered around a potential meeting between Italy and Portugal for a place in the finals.

The winners of the past two European Championships, either the Azzurri or the Selecao will miss out on the biggest tournament of them all.

It should never have been this way, of course, as both teams were strong favourites to finish top of their groups and qualify automatically.

Italy finished second to Switzerland and Portugal were runners-up to Serbia, meaning the sides must now come through two qualifying ties.

First up for the reigning European champions is a meeting with North Macedonia in Palermo, while Portugal face Turkey in Porto, with the winners of both ties advancing.

Should, as expected, Italy and Portugal come through those semi-finals, the latter will have the advantage of staging the final on home soil five days later.

For Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, it presents what will surely be his last chance to play at a record-equalling fifth World Cup.

 

Pathways impacted by political events

Path C of UEFA qualifying is undoubtedly the most eye-catching, but there are also some tasty fixtures in the other two sections – not least a possible Home Nations derby.

Scotland and Wales were kept apart in the Path B semi-finals but could meet in the final should they overcome Ukraine and Austria respectively.

However, due to ongoing events in Ukraine, their game against Scotland has been pushed back – likely until June – as has the final involving either Wales or Austria.

In Path C, Russia had been due to face Poland, but the invasion of Ukraine forced FIFA and UEFA's hand and they have been banned from competing.

Poland have therefore been handed a bye to the qualifying play-off final, where either Sweden or the Czech Republic await. That match will be contested next week as planned.

Canada on verge of ending long wait, USA with work to do

The United States qualified for every World Cup between 1990 and 2014, but they missed out on a place at Russia 2018 after an embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Gregg Berhalter's side are by no means assured of one of the three automatic qualification spots in the CONCACAF section this time around, either.

USA sit second with three games to go, but they still have to travel to third-placed Mexico, as well as facing Panama and Costa Rica, who occupy fourth and fifth respectively.

Level on points with Mexico and four ahead of Costa Rica, it could be a tense finale to qualifying for the Stars and Stripes.

That should not be the case for Canada, who are eight points clear of fourth and are all but assured of ending their 36-year wait to make a second World Cup finals appearance.

Brazil and Argentina through, but who will join them?

The drawn-out South American qualifiers are nearing their conclusion and only four of the 10 sides know their fate at this juncture.

It has been plain sailing for Brazil and Argentina, who are assured of an automatic qualifying spot with three games to go, including a rescheduled meeting between the pair.

Behind those perennial World Cup representatives are Ecuador, who have been the surprise package in qualifying and can finish no lower than fifth.

Ecuador will not be content with anything other than a top-four finish, though, and they can make certain of that with victory over Paraguay.

Assuming Ecuador get over the line, that will leave Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia battling it out for progression, which sets up some intriguing fixtures.

Uruguay occupy fourth place, meaning their qualifying aspirations are in their own hands, but they have Peru and Chile – the two sides behind them – still to face.

Socceroos sweating on finals spot

Only four teams advance automatically from the CONMEBOL section, with the team in fifth entering a play-off against the winner of the AFC fourth round in a one-off tie in June.

That may well turn out to be Australia as the Socceroos are five and four points behind top two Saudi Arabia and Japan in Group B with two games to go.

However, those remaining two fixtures are against those nations occupying automatic qualification places, so Australia may yet sneak through.

Iran and South Korea have already made certain of progression in Group A, meanwhile, leaving the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iraq to compete for third place.

The two third-placed finishers – which, as it stands, are Australia and the UAE – will meet in a one-legged match ahead of that aforementioned play-off with a CONMEBOL side.

Barcelona travel to the Spanish capital to take on Real Madrid in El Clasico on Sunday, and for the first time in a long time, they do so with somewhat justified optimism.

As Bob Dylan said, "the times, they are-a-changin'".

That will perhaps be one of the many songs we will hear blaring out at Camp Nou after Barcelona signed a deal with music streaming giant Spotify for naming rights to the iconic stadium from next season.

This is a club that until 2006 thought it uncouth to even have a shirt sponsor, and when they eventually did, it was a philanthropic deal with UNICEF.

Eventually, the increasing need for vast sums of money in order to stay relevant at football's top table led to the Blaugrana signing a deal with Qatar Airways, though their financial situation has famously worsened in recent years.

That, of course, has been largely down to poor decisions in terms of contract negotiations and recruitment, with their transfer strategy on shuffle in the past five years.

On and off the field, it seemed like Barca were getting further and further away from their roots, though they tried to turn that around by bringing in former European Cup-winning defender Ronald Koeman.

The Dutchman replaced Quique Setien in August 2020 and led Barca to Copa del Rey success in his first season, but they finished third in LaLiga and suffered a Champions League last-16 exit, as well as losing the Supercopa de Espana final to Athletic Bilbao.

A shock 1-0 defeat at Rayo Vallecano in late October 2021 spelled the end for Koeman, but the decision to replace him with Xavi felt like it could have been a different colour of the same thinking, that you need someone who 'gets the club' rather than simply an elite coach.

Pep Guardiola had no affiliation with Manchester City before going to the Etihad Stadium, as with Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool or Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea.

However, while Koeman was a former player and European Cup winner, Xavi was a figure from the club's real golden generation, an era the club and their fans are eager to return to.

Barca felt at their lowest ebb after losing Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain due to financial constraints at the end of last season. They were out of the LaLiga title race early on after winning just four of their first 12 games (D5 L3), before arguably the ultimate humiliation of Champions League elimination in the group stage for the first time in 21 years.

Xavi's first game in charge was somewhat appropriately a derby against Espanyol. It was nervy, it was uncertain, but it was at least a 1-0 win.

Ahead of the home game with Elche in December, the 42-year-old suggested part of the problem was some of his players' inability to grasp "juego de posicion" – "the position game" – a structured approach to play with and without the ball in which the great Barca sides thrived.

In a video for The Coaches' Voice while still manager of Al Sadd, Xavi outlined his philosophy, saying: "The most important, the most beautiful and the most precious thing in football is to have the ball, and to attack and dominate the game with the ball.

"It's clear to me that my team has to control the ball. I suffer when I don't have it. It happened to me when I was a footballer and now even more so on the bench.

"How do I set up the team? Regardless of the system, in the end, the most important thing is this philosophy that we talked about. Total control of the ball – it matters a lot to me. I'm obsessed with possession, and not just to have the ball for the sake of having it, but to attack and create chances and hurt the opposition."

Since Xavi's arrival, Barca have taken 34 points from 15 games in LaLiga (W10 D4 L1), a record only bettered by Real Madrid in that time (39 points – W12 D3 L1).

 

They have also not lost any of their nine away league games since the legendary midfielder was appointed (W5 D4), and should they avoid defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu, Xavi would become only the second Barca coach to be unbeaten in his first 10 away games in the competition after Ernesto Valverde.

Results have clearly improved, but what changes has Xavi actually made to the underachieving side he inherited?

Comparing his 24 games in charge so far with the 13 overseen by Koeman at the start of the season – it would be unfair to look at the Dutchman's entire record at the club given he had statistic monster Messi at his disposal last season – the improvements have been slight yet significant.

Interestingly, their average possession has only risen slightly, from 63.8 per cent to 64.5, while the average number of passes per game has gone from 604.4 to 625.8.

Given Xavi's insistence that possession must also lead to chances that "hurt the opposition", it is a slight surprise to see that Koeman actually saw marginally more big chances created (2.23 per game to 2.21), but Barca now have more shots on goal (15.0 per game, up from 11.2) and are averaging a goal every 47 minutes, drastically up from one every 73 under Koeman.

One thing that may cause some surprise is the apparent willingness to go long more often under Xavi, hitting 52.1 long passes per game compared to 43.6 under Koeman. This does not mean they are becoming a long ball team, rather that they appear to be more willing to play riskier balls to try to turn the opposition around with one pass rather than the possession for the sake of possession Xavi spoke of.

 

This could also be a result of the additions the coach has made to the squad, despite obvious limitations in terms of budget.

The former Premier League trio of Ferran Torres, Adama Traore and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might all be used to playing more direct styles and have impressed since arriving from England.

The return of Dani Alves may have raised eyebrows, but the 38-year-old – while understandably not quite the Alves of old – has restored a certain energy and spirit, even contributing four goal involvements in his eight appearances so far (one goal, three assists).

Xavi no doubt also sees the benefits of having such an experienced head around young stars like Pedri and Gavi, who have both established themselves as vital components of the team being put together.

Another interesting sub-plot to Xavi's brief tenure has been Ousmane Dembele, who still looks like he will be leaving Camp Nou at the end of the campaign once his contract expires.

The club were desperate to move the France international on in January but unable to do so, and it seemed Dembele may just sit in the stands to see out the final months of his deal.

However, Xavi has decided to bring the enigmatic attacker back into the fold, and that call seems to be paying off, with Dembele putting in some star performances in recent weeks, registering five assists in his past four LaLiga appearances, as many as he managed in his previous 45 league games for the club.

The improvement seen at Camp Nou will be put to the test in the Clasico, with Madrid the team to beat in Spain for now.

Xavi will be seeking to change that fact in the coming seasons but first must ensure he continues to get a tune out of his players before the reported €280m Spotify deal kicks in – starting on Sunday.

Is Maurizio Sarri getting the most out of Lazio? To help answer that, we arguably have to look to his coaching predecessor - Simone Inzaghi.

After five seasons of trying under Inzaghi's stewardship, the Biancocelesti finally qualified for the Champions League. There were seasons where they came agonisingly close too - particularly in 2017-18, where Inter beat them at the Stadio Olimpico on the final day of the Serie A season, to claim fourth place and the final spot in Europe's premier competition.

When they finally did qualify, last season’s 6-2 defeat on aggregate to Bayern Munich in the last-16 – and Inzaghi’s ensuing departure for Inter – was microcosmic of an overall sense the 45-year-old extracted the maximum out of the players he had at his disposal, within his system.

With Sunday's Rome derby in mind, despite the fact Lazio are currently fifth and again perceivably in the running for that last Champions League place, that's the arguable framework for how we must interpret Sarri's first season in the Italian capital.

It's not only pertinent to ask whether the 63-year-old is extracting the maximum out of this Lazio squad within his own system. Ultimately, are the players Sarri has at his disposal even compatible to that system?

One of the stronger case studies in this discussion is Luis Alberto. The Spaniard is arguably not only one of Serie A's most transformative midfielders, but in European football.

Since joining Lazio in 2016, within the framework of Inzaghi’s 3-5-2, the 29-year-old blossomed into an elite ball progressor and shot creator from a statistical standpoint. He holds five of the 10 highest ratings for passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes in Lazio's history - since Stats Perform's first recordings of the data in 2005-06.

 

Just as important as Luis Alberto's ability to create with the ball is his ability to act as a positional reference point, in order to create for others without it. His ability to drive and distribute is underpinned by an intelligent and assertive positional sense, which also compliments the likes of Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic - and the latter’s particular penchant for late entry into the penalty area.

Yet along with cramping him of the half-space to move into when Lazio are in possession, Sarri's 4-3-3 setup asks more of the Spaniard defensively - exacerbating his notoriously suspect ground coverage. The more energetic Toma Basic's August transfer from Bordeaux and initial scope under the new coach, in Luis Alberto's place, was conspicuous in this respect.

This all matters because under Sarri, only Napoli have kept the ball more than them in Serie A this season. Lazio rank 12th in Europe's top-five leagues combined for touches per 90, but 60th for shots in the penalty area per 90. It would take a sizeable increase in shot quality upon previous years to make that disparity more sustainable, weighing up qualitative and quantitative aspects. That increase hasn't eventuated.

Lazio's ability to function in possession ultimately relies on Luis Alberto's skillset, and one statistic stands out - even this season, the team has averaged 9.27 shots in open play per 90 minutes with him on the pitch, and 5.97 without. In addition, his impact on Immobile is profound.

 

 

Immobile's xG per open play shot (0.14 on/0.2 off) actually increases when Luis Alberto is off the pitch, but his quantity of open-play shots also goes down (3.15 on/2.27 off). Meanwhile, playing in Sarri's 4-3-3 requires more from him as a collaborative player with his back to goal, a relatively weak area of his play that contributed to respective struggles at Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund and the Italian national team.

In Inzaghi's 3-5-2, Immobile wasn't cramped for space and could still receive the ball between the lines, but in positions where he's able to face goal and go at defenders with momentum. This season, the 32-year-old striker has completed (0.6) and attempted (1.38) fewer dribbles than in any of his six seasons at Lazio.

On top of that, despite this season being his second highest so far for touches per 90 (42.67), Immobile is also creating less chances in open play per 90 (0.78) than in any of his six seasons at the Olimpico. Six penalties for the season brings his higher xG but lower xA per 90 into context, exposing a question of net gain.

 

 

This all provides the backdrop for Lazio's sizeable xG overperformance this season. It is ultimately propelling their contention for a Champions League place and obscuring just how volatile they have been defensively – exposing Francesco Acerbi's ability to play in a four-man defence as opposed to a three-man defence.

So far this season in Serie A, Lazio have scored the second-highest amount of goals with 58 and rank eighth for xG with 42.1, but aside from Hellas Verona (14.3), are a distant first (15.9) in differential between the two statistical categories.

With this all in context, the reality that Sarri will remain faithful to this 4-3-3 will arguably be to the detriment of Lazio's most important players under Inzaghi. Whether they stay or go, as long as Sarri stays, will determine how dramatic the eventual regression to the mean will be.

Following an eventful, dramatic and – dare we say it – the best Formula One season to date, the 2022 campaign has plenty to live up to.

Lewis Hamilton is going in search of a record eighth world title at the second time of asking after missing out to Max Verstappen on the final lap of the final race in 2021.

Reigning champion Verstappen is himself seeking some personal history this coming campaign, which begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend.

Ahead of what will hopefully be an equally as gripping season this time around, Stats Perform picks out some of the key numbers.

 

Hamilton narrowly missed out on surpassing Michael Schumacher as F1's most successful driver, though he has not missed out on top spot in successive years since joining Mercedes in 2013.

Should he match his achievement from last year, Red Bull's Verstappen (25 years, two months) would surpass Fernandes Alonso (25y, 2m, 23 days) as the second-youngest multiple world champion, behind only Sebastian Vettel (24y, 3m).

Mercedes may have suffered disappointment last time out, but they still finished top of the constructors' standings for a record-extending eighth time in a row. They are one short of equalling Williams as the second-most successful team, though Ferrari (16) are still well out in front.

In terms of other team milestones, Bahrain will be the 250th GP Mercedes have competed in, while they are six fastest laps away from setting 100. McLaren, meanwhile, are seven podiums from reaching 500 in F1.

Joining Hamilton at Mercedes this season is compatriot George Russell, who along with McLaren's Lando Norris is aiming to become the first Briton other than Hamilton to win a race since Jenson Button in 2012.

Bottas is now at Alfa Romeo and is joined by Guanyu Zhou, who will be China's first ever representative on the grid, making them the 39th country to appear in F1. Indeed, it is the first time three Asian countries will be represented, with Alex Albon (Thailand) and Yuki Tsunoda (Japan) also featuring.

 

Now 14 years on from their most recent constructors' title, Ferrari will equal their worst-such streak – 15 years between 1984 and 1998 – if they again miss out this term.

Carlos Sainz is Ferrari's big hope and he has either matched or bettered his performance from the previous season – both in terms of points and position – over the past six years when racing for just one team.

While his title chances are slim at best, Fernando Alonso has the opportunity to become the driver with the biggest margin between F1 titles of all time, 16 years on from his most recent success. 

Twenty-two events are currently locked in the F1 calendar for this year, with Miami set to become the 77th different circuit used when it hosts its maiden GP in May. It will be the 11th different track used in the United States, which is the most of any country.

All eyes will be on the Stade de France on Saturday as the 2022 Six Nations comes to a conclusion when leaders France take on England.

While the visitors can finish no higher than third place, Eddie Jones' men will revel in being the ultimate party poopers in Paris.

Victory for France in 'Le Crunch' will seal a first Grand Slam since 2010, though Les Blues could still finish top and land a first title since then should Ireland fail to beat Scotland.

Saturday's other fixture sees Wales take on pointless Italy in Cardiff and, while there may be little riding on that game, it will be a milestone occasion for a couple of players.

Ahead of the final round of fixtures, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.


FRANCE V ENGLAND

FORM

The omens are good for France as two of their previous three Six Nations Grand Slams have been completed with victory over England in the final round, in 2004 and again six years later, while just one of the past nine games between these sides in the competition has been won by the visitors – England prevailing 31-21 in 2016.

Fabien Galthie's charges have lost just one of their past eight home games in the competition, with that solitary defeat coming at the hands of Scotland last year as they chased a big winning margin to pip Wales to the title.

England are aiming to avoid losing three matches in a single edition of the Six Nations for the third time in seven years playing under Eddie Jones, having also done so in 2018 and 2021, and for a fifth time overall. 


ONES TO WATCH

Damian Penaud, who has a joint-high three tries in this year's tournament, is back in France's starting XV after recovering from coronavirus, replacing the injured Yoram Moefana. France have scored seven tries from counter-attacks this year, which is at least three more than any other team, so pacey Penaud could cause some damage this weekend.

England will need to work incredibly hard if they are to stop arguably the world's top side right now and hope that their key players turn up. In Marcus Smith they boast a player who leads the way for points in 2022 with 63, 19 more than next-best Melvyn Jaminet.

 

IRELAND V SCOTLAND

FORM

Ireland must beat Scotland earlier on Saturday if they are to remain in title contention and they have a great recent record in this fixture, winning seven of their last eight Six Nations meetings.

That record is even better on home soil, meanwhile, having been victorious in 10 of the last 11 encounters in the competition, including each of the last five in a row. Scotland's only win in that run came at Croke Park in 2010.

Fourth-placed Scotland have won five of their last six away games in the tournament, however, which is as many as they had managed in their previous 43.


ONES TO WATCH

Ireland were made to work hard for their victory against an England side that played almost the entire 80 minutes with 14 men last week, but they did ultimately get the job done. Jamison Gibson-Park led the way for passes in that match with 59 – more than double any opposition player – and he has a joint-high three assists in this edition.

Finn Russell is level with Gibson-Park on three assists, but he has been surprisingly omitted from Scotland's squad for the match at the Aviva Stadium due to his growing indiscipline and poor form. Ali Price is next for Scotland on the assists list with two, and there will now be more focus on him on what is his 51st cap.



WALES V ITALY

FORM

Wales are aiming to climb two places and finish third and will be confident of fulfilling their half of the bargain by claiming a bonus-point win against bottom side Italy. The Dragons have won each of their last 14 in this fixture, last tasting defeat in 2007.

After losing at home to France in their most recent home match, Wales are aiming to avoid successive losses at the Principality Stadium in the competition for the first time in 15 years, when losing their final such game in 2006 and first in 2007.

Italy will claim the Wooden Spoon once again having lost all five games this year, stretching their record losing run in the tournament to 36 matches. The Azzurri's most recent win away from home came against Scotland in 2015.

ONES TO WATCH

This will be a special occasion for Dan Biggar, who is in line for his 100th cap, and Alun Wyn Jones, who returns for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury against New Zealand in October for his 150th appearance. That makes the Wales skipper the first player to win 150 or more caps for a single nation in history.

Ange Capuozzo has been handed a first Test start after making a big impression in an otherwise disappointing campaign for Italy. The Grenoble full-back has scored two tries in this year's Six Nations, accounting for half of Italy's total, with both of those coming in a 34-minute appearance against Scotland in round four.

Tuesday sees two very finely poised games in the Champions League round of 16 as Manchester United host Atletico Madrid and Benfica travel to Amsterdam to face Ajax.

A 1-1 draw at the Wanda Metropolitano three weeks ago felt harsh on Atletico, and Diego Simeone will not have been too pleased to see Cristiano Ronaldo roar back into form at the weekend with a hat-trick in United's 3-2 win against Tottenham.

An exciting first leg in Lisbon saw Benfica and Ajax play out a 2-2 draw, with the Dutch side's star striker Sebastien Haller finding the net at both ends.

The removal of the away goals rule means there is not a single thing separating these sides heading into the second legs, so here are some Opta facts to help you decide who you think will come out on top on Tuesday.

Manchester United v Atletico Madrid

Ronaldo was back to his effervescent best on Saturday, and has scored in both of his Champions League home games for Ralf Rangnick's men this season. If he does so again, it would be only the second time he has managed three in a row for the club (previously between November 2007 and March 2008).

He has netted 13 goals in his last 15 home games against Atletico across all competitions, including two hat-tricks in his most recent four (for Real Madrid in May 2017 and Juventus in March 2019, both in this competition).

United have been eliminated from their last three Champions League knockout stage games when drawing the first leg, doing so against Real Madrid (2012-13 last 16), Bayern Munich (2013-14 quarter-final) and Sevilla (2017-18 last 16).

However, when failing to win the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie at home, Atletico have been eliminated three out of four times. The only exception was a 3-1 win at Chelsea in the 2013-14 semi-final, following a 0-0 draw in the home leg.

 

Before this season, 69 per cent of teams to draw the first leg of a Champions League knockout stage tie at home have been eliminated (59/85). That being said, six of the last 10 such teams to progress have done so against English sides.

Atletico have lost their last two away trips to face English sides in the Champions League, losing at Chelsea in 2020-21 and Liverpool this season without scoring a goal in either. In addition, they have not kept a clean sheet in any of their eight total away games against English teams in the competition, conceding 14 goals overall.

The Red Devils have only won two of their last eight Champions League home games when hosting Spanish opposition (D3 L3), although the most recent of those did come earlier in the competition this season, beating Villarreal 2-1 with a stoppage-time winner from Ronaldo.

Despite the reputation of Simeone's side for being tight at the back, they have not kept a clean sheet in any of their last six Champions League matches – only between September 2009 and October 2013 (seven games) have they had a longer such run in the competition.

Ajax v Benfica

Ajax lost their first ever home game against a Portuguese opponent in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League (3-1 in February 1969 v Benfica) but have since gone unbeaten in five matches since (W4 D1). They have won all three encounters that have taken place in the Champions League era, including one earlier this season (4-2 win v Sporting CP in the group stage).

Including qualifiers, Benfica have only won one of their last 10 away games against Dutch sides in European competition – 1-0 v AZ in the Europa League in 2013-14. Six of the other nine games have ended in draws (L3), including one earlier this season against PSV in Champions League qualifying (0-0).

Ajax have won all three of their home games in the Champions League this season. They will be looking to win four in a row on home soil in the competition for the first time since March 1996, when they won seven in succession under Louis van Gaal.

Benfica are looking to progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2015-16, when they beat Zenit. It would be just the fourth time they have reached the quarter-finals of the competition in the 21st century, after doing so in 2005-06, 2011-12 and 2015-16.

 

Goal enthusiasts Ajax have scored at least twice in all seven of their Champions League games this season, netting 22 times in total. That is the most by team from outside of the big five European leagues through their first seven games of a campaign since Ajax themselves, who scored 30 in 1979-80.

Benfica have only won one of their last 14 away games in the Champions League (D4 L9), which was against AEK Athens in October 2018. In the knockout stages of the competition, Nelson Verissimo's side have lost five of their last six away games (W1).

Ajax have four different players in double figures for chances created from open play in the Champions League this season – Dusan Tadic (16), Haller (13), Steven Berghuis (12) and Antony (10). Only Manchester City have had as many different players do so (also four).

Haller has been directly involved in five goals in three home appearances in the Champions League this season (three goals, two assists), and could become just the fourth player in the competition's history to score in each of his first four home appearances, after Oscar (2013), Frederic Kanoute (2008) and Alessandro Del Piero (1996).

The outstanding coaching career of Gregg Popovich reached new heights with the San Antonio Spurs' victory over the Utah Jazz.

San Antonio's 104-102 triumph on Friday marked career win number 1,336 for Popovich, taking him past Don Nelson for the most by a coach in NBA history.

It is yet another remarkable achievement by one of the finest coaches to ever grace the NBA sideline.

In celebration of Popovich's latest accomplishment, here Stats Perform looks at five of the greatest feats of his career.

The first title

It might not have been the hardest Finals success of Popovich's career, but the first title in franchise history is always a memorable one, and he delivered that for the Spurs in 1999.

San Antonio earned the one seed in the Western Conference and the Spurs subsequently blitzed their way through the playoffs, losing only one game en route to the Finals.

And the fairytale New York Knicks, who had reached the Finals as the eighth seed in the East, proved no match for David Robinson, Tim Duncan and the Spurs.

Indeed, without the injured Patrick Ewing, the Knicks were overpowered and Avery Johnson's game-winning shot with 47 seconds left in Game 5 clinched a 4-1 series triumph for the Spurs, with Popovich able to celebrate his first title at the Mecca of basketball.

Kawhi holds off LeBron

Having tasted defeat to the Miami Heat in seven games a year earlier, Popovich and the Spurs pulled off the most impressive of their five NBA title wins in 2014 by getting revenge on Erik Spoelstra's star-studded team.

In what proved to be the final series of LeBron James' career with the Heat, the superior roster depth of the Spurs proved the difference against Miami's big three as they prevailed 4-1 over LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Co.

Having split the first two games in San Antonio, the Spurs swept their two games in South Florida and then wrapped things up as Kawhi Leonard's double-double inspired a 104-87 win in Game 5.

In large part for his defensive effort against James, Leonard was named Finals MVP. His field goal percentage of 61.2 was the highest by a Finals MVP until Giannis Antetokoumpo surpassed it in 2021 with 61.8 per cent.

Those 18 consecutive 50-win seasons

As his record-setting number of wins indicates, consistent success has defined Popovich's career with the Spurs, who comfortably hold the NBA record for most successive 50-win seasons.

From 1999-2000 to 2016-17, the Spurs won at least 50 games for 18 consecutive campaigns, the final year in that run among one of the most impressive as San Antonio racked up 61 victories while playing in a Western Conference featuring a Golden State Warriors team playing their first season with Kevin Durant.

The Spurs were swept by the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, though Game 1 suggested it would have been a much different series had Leonard not suffered an injury that ended his season.

San Antonio's 18-season run will take some beating, as the Los Angeles Lakers are next on the list with a 12-season run between 1979-80 and 1990-91.

Olympic gold

Popovich took over from Mike Krzyzewski as head coach of Team USA and met expectations by delivering the gold amid the strange backdrop of a pandemic Olympics at the delayed Tokyo 2020.

The USA recovered from an opening defeat to France to once again take the gold, avenging the loss to Les Bleus with an 87-82 win over the same opposition in the final.

After a build-up to the Games in which many questions were raised about the strength in depth of the USA team and a poor start to the competition, the hard-fought triumph added further gloss to the CV of a coach many consider to be the greatest of all time.

The record win

The 2021-22 season has not been one to remember for the Spurs, but a surprise defeat of the Jazz at least gave Popovich a memorable moment in a trying campaign.

San Antonio trailed 74-64 going into the final quarter, but the Spurs racked up 40 across the final frame to improve their record to 26-41 and, more importantly, secure history for their coach, Dejounte Murray the star of the show with 27 for the game.

"Basketball is a team sport," Popovich said afterwards. "All of us share in this record. It's not mine. It's ours."

With Popovich's NBA career showing no signs of imminently coming to an end, he should have plenty of opportunities to extend his lead at the top of the all-time standings and make his record extremely difficult to beat.

France are rolling towards a possible Grand Slam as they arrive in Cardiff for game four in their Six Nations mission, but Fabien Galthie's team must not switch off now.

The championship may yet see a France versus England title decider at the Stade de France next weekend, but whether 'Le Crunch' proves crucial will hinge on results this time around.

A mighty Welsh effort in Cardiff could knock the French juggernaut off course, while Ireland will believe they can achieve a result at Twickenham.

Scotland and Italy, meanwhile, tussle in Rome. That was once typically a Wooden Spoon decider; this time, the Scots are heavy favourites.

Ahead of the fourth round of fixtures, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.

WALES V FRANCE

FORM

Wales have lost each of their last two meetings with France in the Six Nations, after winning seven of their previous eight clashes in the championship. France's 27-23 win at the Principality Stadium two years ago was their first success in Cardiff in the competition since 2010, and France have not won back-to-back away games against Wales since reeling off four in a row from 2000 to 2006.

Wayne Pivac's Wales won at home against Scotland last month but have lost on the road to Ireland and England. The Welsh have pulled off 10 wins from their last 11 matches in Cardiff in the Six Nations, with France the only side to beat them during that sequence.

This France team are living up to their billing as pre-tournament favourites and have won their last six Test matches, their best run since also winning six on the bounce in 2006. They have not won more consecutive internationals since a run of eight in 2004, which included a victory in Cardiff.

ONES TO WATCH

Among players to hit 20 or more attacking rucks in this season's Six Nations, Wales' Ross Moriarty has the best ruck effectiveness rate, cleaning out the opposition or securing possession at 96 per cent of the attacking rucks he has hit (27 of 28). Moriarty is not a starter this week, as Pivac rings the changes, but will surely have a role to play off the bench.

France's Damian Penaud would have been a strong contender here, having beaten 10 defenders in this year's Six Nations, the joint most of any player alongside Scotland's Darcy Graham, with Penaud also achieving a championship-best tackle evasion rate of 77 per cent. Penaud is ruled out by a COVID-19 positive test, so can his fellow wings Yoram Moefana and Gabin Villiere prove as elusive?

 

ITALY V SCOTLAND

FORM

There was a time when Scotland dreaded facing Italy, but those days appear long gone. The Scots have won their last six matches against the Azzurri in the Six Nations, last losing at Murrayfield in 2015. Prior to this dominant era, Scotland had won nine and Italy had won seven of their first 16 clashes in the championship. The Scots have won their last four away games against Italy.

Italy's losing run in the competition has now reached a dismal 35 games, and that Murrayfield victory seven years ago was their last success. Kieran Crowley's team have failed to score a try in their last two Six Nations games, the first time this has happened for Italy since they went on a run of three games without a try in the 2009 championship.

Ali Price is set to win his 50th cap for Scotland. The Glasgow Warriors scrum-half has scored just one try in his seven appearances against Italy, although he has four try assists across his last two Tests against the Azzurri.

ONES TO WATCH

Michele Lamaro has made 59 tackles in this year's Six Nations, at least 13 more than any other player. That is the upside. The downside is that he has also missed the most tackles of any player (13); however, only one of those missed tackles led to a break, with the other 12 seeing the opposition player tackled by a team-mate.

By contrast, Scotland's Hamish Watson has made 31 tackles without missing one so far in this year's competition. Only Ireland's Caelan Doris has made more without missing (36/36). Watson has now made 180 tackles in the championship since his last miss, which came back in 2019 against England.

 

ENGLAND V IRELAND

FORM

England have tended to like this fixture of late, having won four of their last five home games against Ireland in the Six Nations. A 24-15 defeat in 2018 was the exception in this run which started in 2012. England have also won 22 of their last 25 home matches – taking all opponents into account – in the Six Nations (D1, L2).

Yet Ireland are the only side that England have a losing record against in the Six Nations era, winning just 45 per cent of their meetings in the championship (W10, L12).

Whoever leads at half-time seems nailed on for the win. None of the previous 22 Six Nations matches between England and Ireland have seen an interval deficit overturned to bring about a victory for the trailing team.

ONES TO WATCH

England's Marcus Smith is the leading points scorer so far in this year's championship. He has 48 points, meaning Smith is two shy of becoming the fifth different England player to notch up 50 points in an edition of the Six Nations (Jonny Wilkinson 7 times, Toby Flood once, Owen Farrell 6 times, George Ford once).

Ireland's Doris has been a 'nuisance' (slowing the opposition ball) at more rucks (7) than any other player in this year's tournament, Opta data shows.

World champion Max Verstappen has extended his contract with Red Bull until the end of 2028.

The new deal, confirmed on Thursday, was hailed as a "real statement of intent" by team principal Christian Horner.

Verstappen now has the longest contract of any driver on the Formula One grid and will spend what should be his peak years with Red Bull.

On the back of claiming his maiden world title in the most dramatic of circumstances last season, the 24-year-old is out to make more history in the 2022 campaign.

With the aid of Opta, Stats Perform takes a look at the numbers behind Verstappen's impressive career.

 

- At the age of 24 years, two months and 12 days at the time of the eventful 2021 season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December, Verstappen became the fourth-youngest driver to win an F1 world title, behind only Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

- Should he hold off Mercedes' Hamilton – and indeed any other contenders – by coming out on top again this year, the Dutchman would become the second-youngest driver to win multiple world titles after Vettel (24y, 3m, 6d).

- The 10 race victories recorded by Verstappen in 2021 were as many as he managed in his previous seven seasons combined – five years with Red Bull and two with Toro Rosso – with his three victories in 2019 a previous season's best prior to last year.

- On top of his 20 victories across eight years with Red Bull and Toro Rosso, spanning some 141 grands prix, Verstappen has finished on the podium 60 times – 18 of those coming last season alone. That set a new F1 record as he went past the previous mark of 17 podiums, jointly held by Michael Schumacher, Hamilton and Vettel, albeit Verstappen benefited from having more races than in previous seasons.

- The six fastest laps recorded by Verstappen in 2021 was another career high, double his previous best from 2019 and 2020 when finishing third in the drivers' standings on both occasions. 

- Verstappen is the first Dutchman to hold claim to being F1 world champion, making the Netherlands the 15th different nationality for a winning driver. He is Red Bull's second world champion, meanwhile, following Vettel's four-year reign on top between 2010 and 2013.

What do Dusan Vlahovic, Dodi Lukebakio and Gaetan Laborde all have in common?

As of this moment, not much – aside from having been touted as the next Newcastle United signing. But if Vlahovic gets a goal for Juventus against Fiorentina on Wednesday, he will join Wolfsburg's Lukebakio (who joined on loan from Hertha Berlin) and Rennes' Laborde (who signed from Montpellier) as the only players in Europe's top five leagues to score for and against the same team this season.

Vlahovic said his feelings were "a bit mixed" as he contemplated facing the Viola at the Artemio Franchi, where he spent four years after joining as an 18-year-old from Partizan. "It's a bit strange," he told DAZN, to prepare for a game against the team for whom he scored 33 times in Serie A in 2021, equalling the competition's calendar-year record set by Cristiano Ronaldo – the man he was bought to replace in Turin.

The sentiment among Fiorentina's faithful will be a bit more, well, partisan. Vlahovic's January transfer, completed on his 22nd birthday for an initial fee of €70million, sparked levels of fury among the fan base arguably not seen since the Roberto Baggio riots of the early 1990s. Fiorentina ultras vented their anger not just at the player, but at the club itself, lambasting president Rocco Commisso for doing deals with "the ultimate evil" after previously promising never to sell their best players to the hated Bianconeri.

Meanwhile, Vlahovic has got on with the day job of scoring goals, and with three in his past two games, Juve are beginning to hope of a surprise late challenge for the Champions League and Serie A titles. Before then comes the small matter of a Coppa Italia semi-final in Florence, and the chance for Vlahovic to take a step closer to a first trophy outside Serbia by knocking out his old employers.

And he wouldn't be the first Juve player to return to haunt Fiorentina...

Roberto Baggio

Baggio isn't the sole reason Fiorentina don't like Juventus, but ask someone to explain the rivalry and his name will likely come up pretty quickly.

The pony-tailed posterboy of Italian football developed into a star in his five years in Tuscany even before his rise to global fame at the 1990 World Cup on home soil. It was in that same year that Juve signed him from Fiorentina for an approximate fee of £8million, smashing the world transfer record and sparking furious Fiorentina fans to take to the streets in protest.

Baggio claimed he never really wanted to leave and, when he returned to face them in Bianconeri colours on April 7, he refused to take a penalty ostensibly out of concern that goalkeeper Gianmatteo Mareggini would know where he would put it. Luigi Di Biagio stepped up instead, missed, and Juve lost. Picking up a Fiorentina scarf didn't help Baggio to endear himself to the Juve faithful, either.

Still, over the next five years, Baggio would fire them to Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup glory and become the first Italian since Paolo Rossi in 1982 to win the Ballon d'Or (it would be 13 more years before another, Fabio Cannavaro, did the same).

Giorgio Chiellini

If Baggio's transfer sparked a riot, Giorgio Chiellini's permanent move to Juve in 2005 prompted more of a quiet grumble. He spent 2004-05 with the Viola after they and Juve reached a co-ownership deal, so it was always anticipated the suits in Turin might stump up the full amount for his registration rights.

Of course, watching Chiellini win nine Scudetti, five Coppa Italia crowns and Euro 2020 as part of a glittering Azzurri career has left plenty of Fiorentina fans with an unshakeable sense of 'what if'.

In December 2005, Chiellini started against Fiorentina in a frankly unfair back four that also featured Lillian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta, with Juve claiming a 2-1 win thanks to Mauro Camoranesi's 88th-minute goal. 

He's since gone on to face Fiorentina 17 times in Serie A, losing just twice. But, more importantly, Chiellini has become a Juve great – he is just two games away from putting himself third behind Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon on the club's all-time appearances list.

Federico Bernardeschi

Bernardeschi may have moved out of season, but that didn't stop Fiorentina fans venting their anger in response to his €40m switch. They hung a banner outside the stadium that made their displeasure fairly clear. It read: "Who wouldn't like to spit in your face… you s***** hunchback".

His move to the Old Lady came after a something of a breakthrough season as he scored 11 times in Serie A – that was an improvement of nine from the two he'd got the previous campaign.

Unsurprisingly he was jeered and targeted by banners on his first return to Florence in February 2018, though Bernardeschi had the last laugh, curling a free-kick in as Juve won 2-0. It's fair to say he didn't abstain from celebrating, letting out a huge scream.

"I celebrated when I scored because I believe a professional should respect the fans. I've always been grateful to Fiorentina, and always will, for the way they looked after me and helped me develop, but I made a career choice and now I play for another team," he told Sky Sport Italia at the time.

But Bernardeschi's struggled to have the same kind of importance to Juve, rather being used as more of a utility and back-up player, which is reflected by the fact he's scored just eight league goals for the club.

Federico Chiesa

If Fiorentina fans are upset on Wednesday, just wait until next season when Federico Chiesa is fit again and lining up alongside Vlahovic. The pair appeared together 41 times for the Viola before Chiesa's October 2020 departure for Turin.

Chiesa, who is out for the rest of the season following damage to his anterior cruciate ligament, will be a permanent Juve player in 2022-23. For now, remarkably, he is merely on loan from Fiorentina.

Such deals that appear to favour the buying club are not uncommon in Serie A, but Fiorentina supporters could be forgiven for being furious as their club again accommodated the transfer of a star player to their bitter rivals.

Chiesa – the son of former Fiorentina forward Enrico – dazzled in his final full season in Florence, with 11 goals and six assists, and has done likewise for Juve following a slightly tricky start. At the time of his injury – before Vlahovic's arrival – he was the Bianconeri's standout performer.

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