Gio Reyna was substituted early on during the United States' limp 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, dealing them an injury scare less than two months before the start of the World Cup.

The Borussia Dortmund winger, who is expected to play a key role for Gregg Berhalter's men in Qatar, bowed out after just half an hour of the team's final pre-tournament friendly in Murcia, being replaced by Paul Arriola.

The teenager's departure will have set alarm bells ringing, particularly given he missed much of last season after suffering several muscle injuries.

A statement on the national team's social media channels moved to allay those fears, however, indicating the Dortmund man was replaced as a precautionary measure after experiencing "muscle tightness".

Berhalter's side had started brightly in Spain, with Tyler Adams going close from distance, but Saudi Arabia missed the best chance of the first half when DeAndre Yedlin – who was also later substituted through injury – made a last-ditch block to deny Hattan Bahebri.

Jesus Ferreira could only manage a tame attempt when presented with the USA's best opportunity of the second half, and they will enter the World Cup in disappointing form, having suffered a dismal 2-0 loss to Japan last week.

 

Jamaica’s Under-15 continued to struggle at the 2022 Concacaf Girls’ Under-15 Championship in Tampa, Florida after suffering a heavy 11-0 loss at the hands of the United States on Tuesday.

The young Reggae Girlz opened the tournament in Group B with a 5-0 loss to Canada.  Where Nikolina Istocki led the way with a pair of goals for the Canadians.

Things would get a good deal worse for Jamaica as the rampant United States, the competition’s defending champion handed them an 11-0 loss.   Abby Ballek scored four goals, while Alexandra Pfeiffer bagged a brace to lead the way for the North Americans.

The United States began the competition with a 12-0 win over Puerto Rico.  The Jamaicans will face Puerto Rico in the final group match on Thursday.

 

Jamaica Reggae Girlz head coach, Lorne Donaldson, is hoping for sharper finishing in front of goal against the United States but expects that to continue improving as the team gets more games under its belt.

The Jamaicans kicked off the Concacaf W Championship in impressive fashion with a 1-0 win over hosts Mexico on Monday.  The team, however, in all likelihood could and should have won by a bigger margin having created several clear-cut opportunities throughout the match.

Most notably, Khadijah Shaw scored the all-important goal but also hit the upright in the second half, while attempting to chip Mexican goalkeeper Emily Alvarado.  Forward Jody Brown was also guilty of a bit of profligacy, after being played through clean on goal on three occasions but picking out the keeper with all three attempts. 

With the Reggae Girlz scheduled to tackle the world's number one ranked the United States on Thursday, such opportunities are likely to be few and far between.  Donaldson was quick to point out, however, that attacking coordination and finishing in front of the goal takes time to develop and time is a luxury that the team did not have in its preparation for the tournament.

“The sharpness up front takes time (to develop) and we had no games coming in.  Two weeks of preparation was all we had to get the group together.  Some of the team came in a little unfit so we tried to spend some time getting the fitness up,” Donaldson said.

“So, for that sharpness, hopefully, our instincts will kick in, because the hardest part of the game is to get your finishing touch and we saw that.  So hopefully, we will have a bit more luck and do a better job in that department.”   

The top two teams from each group will advance to the next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

World Rugby has confirmed Australia and the United States as the next two hosts of the men's Rugby World Cup.

The men's tournament will be held in Australia in 2027, and the women's World Cup will be hosted Down Under two years later. 

Australia has not hosted the men's tournament since 2003, when Jonny Wilkinson's last-gasp drop-goal ensured victory for England over the Wallabies in the final.

The USA, meanwhile, will host the competition for the very first time in 2031, with the women's tournament held there in 2033. The next women's World Cup, in 2025, will take place in England.

World Rugby confirmed the news at its annual meeting in Dublin on Thursday, promising to deliver "a golden decade for the sport".

Bill Beaumont, chairman of World Rugby, said: "We have approved three exceptional Rugby World Cup host nations – England, Australia and the USA – providing unprecedented certainty and an unparalleled opportunity to accelerate the growth and impact of rugby globally. It is great for rugby, for fans and for the host nations.

"Today is a landmark moment for the sport, and an exciting development for fans. I would like to congratulate everyone involved in making this dream a reality as we look to deliver a truly global sport for all."

Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan labelled it as "an historic day for rugby in Australia", while USA Rugby chief executive Ross Young said: "I speak for the rugby community and fans across the United States when I express our sincere gratitude to World Rugby for their trust and endorsement of our vision to grow this incredible sport exponentially across our country."

The next men's World Cup will be held in France in 2023, with South Africa the reigning champions following their triumph over England in 2019 in Japan.

Ukraine midfielder Taras Stepanenko wants their World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final against Scotland to be postponed again.

Scotland and Ukraine were meant to meet last month, but FIFA delayed the match until June due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As such, Wales – who beat Austria 2-1 in their play-off semi – are yet to find out which team they will face for a place at the Qatar World Cup in November.

Wales, Scotland and Ukraine all know which group they will be in should they progress, however, with the winner of the play-off path having been drawn alongside England, Iran and the United States in Group B.

But with no sign of the conflict in Ukraine ceasing, Stepanenko, who has played 69 times for his country, has called on FIFA to delay the match with Scotland again. 

The Shakhtar Donetsk man, who last played a match in December, told The Sunday Times: "We don't want to be known as victims here. We are strong and capable guys, everyone is fine, and we can play 100 per cent.

"But the question I would ask is how can we play such an important game when you haven't played a match for such a long time?

"Every football player knows that if you recover from an injury for a long time, no matter how much you work out in the gym and do running, you go out to play football and everything is different.

"The level and strength may not be enough with one match, but we will be asked to play two incredibly tough matches in maybe four days to get to the World Cup. If there is no option, then we must play.

"But I think it would be extremely difficult to achieve two positive results. We are hoping FIFA and UEFA recognise this and postpone the matches to give us more time to prepare."

Speaking after the World Cup draw was made in Doha on Friday, both England manager Gareth Southgate and USA coach Gregg Berhalter stressed they were not concerned by how long it might take for the final team in their group to be confirmed, given the extraordinary circumstances.

"When that tie is played out is irrelevant really," said Southgate, while Berhalter added: "We're patient on that and pulling for [Ukraine] 100 per cent."

We know most of the teams and now we know the majority of the games after the draw for the 2022 World Cup was made in Doha on Friday.

The full line-up of teams is still to be determined and the locations and times for each fixture are also to be confirmed, but what we do know is that there will be some extremely intriguing matches in the group stage in November when proceedings get under way in Qatar.

Tournament debutants, check. Cinderella stories, check. A mouth-watering clash between European heavyweights, check. A game to make England fans extremely anxious, oh you better believe that's a check.

Yes, this is a group stage that appears to have everything and, while there is plenty of time for opinions of these teams to change, here Stats Perform takes you through a look at some of the best games delivered by this year's draw.

Qatar v Ecuador (November 21)

Over 8,000 miles separate Doha and Quito, but both cities figure to be transfixed by the World Cup opener, in which the hosts will make their debut.

Qatar have been dealt a difficult hand in Group A, having also been pitted against three-time finalists the Netherlands and African champions Senegal.

First up, though, is a meeting with an Ecuador side that came through the arduous challenge of CONMEBOL qualifying with 27 goals to their name, their highest tally in a single edition.

Qatar do have recent tournament pedigree, however, impressively beating Japan 3-1 in the final of the 2019 Asian Cup, with the goal they conceded the only time their net was breached in the entire tournament.

Yet their performance in the Asian Cup that same year did not inspire much confidence in them beating a South American nation. Qatar were knocked out in the group stage with just one point to their name when they appeared in the Copa America.

Belgium v Canada (November 23)

Canada face a challenging start to their first World Cup finals appearance since 1986, a duel with the side second behind Brazil in the FIFA world rankings their immediate reward for a dream run through CONCACAF qualifying.

Belgium should not lack motivation, with Qatar realistically marking the last chance for their 'golden generation' to win a major tournament. Their performance in the group stage across the last 28 years suggests a shock here is unlikely. Since losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in 1994, the Red Devils are unbeaten in 12 group stage matches.

But Canada can afford to be full of belief following a remarkable qualifying run in which they scored 23 goals and conceded just seven in the final round.

Regardless of how they perform, English coach John Herdman will make history, as he is set to become the first person to manage in both the men's and women's World Cup.

England v United States (November 25)

Everybody loves a trilogy. Unless you're Rob Green. England and the United States have met twice in the World Cup, and the Three Lions have not won either of those games.

There was a famous defeat to the USA as England crashed out in the group stage in their first appearance in the finals in 1950.

Acquaintances were renewed 60 years later, with the USA claiming a point after Green spilled Clint Dempsey's long-range effort to cancel out Steven Gerrard's early opener.

England, having lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties to Italy and gone unbeaten in 22 matches – conceding only three goals in qualifying – will be the heavy favourites once again. However, a USA side that boasts the likes of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie have the talent in their ranks to spring a surprise.

Argentina v Mexico (November 26)

Lionel Messi and La Albiceleste will have a couple of tricky hurdles to negotiate in the group stage, this meeting with El Tri coming before a Group C finale against Robert Lewandowski and Poland.

Mexico boast a superb record when it comes to getting through the group stage, having done so in each of their last eight appearances at the finals.

Facing the prolific talents of Lewandowski and Messi, this is a group that threatens to put that streak in jeopardy.

The Mexico defence kept eight clean sheets in CONCACAF qualifying, and such resolute play at the back will likely be needed for them to defy Messi and Co.

That task has frequently proven beyond Mexico, who have lost each of their three World Cup meetings with Argentina.

Hoping to mastermind a shock will be a face familiar to Messi and his team-mates, with former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino set to lead Mexico into a game against his home country.

Spain vs Germany (November 27)

This is comfortably the headline act as two of the previous three World Cup winners square off knowing victory could be crucial, with the side that finishes second in Group E potentially set to face Belgium, presuming they win Group F as most would expect, in the last 16.

Germany will hope the early signs of progress under Hansi Flick are realised in Qatar, having gone unbeaten in each of their nine games (including friendlies) since he took over from Joachim Low.

Die Mannschaft have conceded just three goals in that run, but a meeting with a Spain side that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and is filled with emerging young talent promises to be difficult in the extreme.

La Roja reached the final of the UEFA Nations League, which they lost 2-1 to France, with that defeat and a qualifying loss to Sweden the only blips for Luis Enrique's side since their shoot-out agony at the hands of Italy.

Germany and Spain have met four times in the World Cup finals, with the former prevailing in 1966 and 1982. They played out a draw in the group stage in 1994, but Spain claimed a 1-0 victory in 2010 en route to winning the trophy for the first time in their history. Flick was an assistant to Low on Germany's coaching staff during that tournament.

Ghana v Uruguay (December 2)

The appetite for revenge will be high among fans of the Black Stars, who get another crack at Luis Suarez's Uruguay over 12 years on from their controversial 2010 exit at the quarter-final stage.

Suarez gladly took on the role of villain in a remarkable end to extra time in that match, committing a deliberate handball to prevent Dominic Adiyiah's header from giving Ghana a 2-1 lead late into the additional half hour.

The then-Ajax striker was sent off, but Asamoah Gyan skied the subsequent penalty, with Suarez seen enthusiastically celebrating the miss in the tunnel.

Uruguay then held their nerve to prevail in the shoot-out and prevent Ghana from becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals.

Now, in a group that also features Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and Son Heung-min and South Korea, Ghana could have the chance to send Uruguay home early in the final round of group stage fixtures.

This one promises to be tasty.

Gregg Berhalter is relishing the opportunity to face Gareth Southgate's England at the World Cup, with the United States coach seeing his England counterpart as a "mentor".

The USA were drawn alongside England, Iran and one of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine in Group B in Friday's draw for the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in Qatar later this year.

Having failed to make the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the USA were not sure of qualification heading into Wednesday's meeting with Costa Rica, which they lost 2-0.

However, a 5-0 win over Panama in their previous qualifier had all but ensured that they, along with Mexico and Canada, progressed automatically as the CONCACAF representatives, courtesy of their superior goal difference compared to Costa Rica.

Speaking to BBC Sport following the draw, Berhalter explained how he and Southgate "go way back", saying they had contact following the former's appointment as USA coach in 2018.

"We think it's a good group, we know every opponent in the World Cup is difficult but with England you get an exciting match-up," Berhalter said.

"We go way back. He's a guy I look up to and has always been there for me, given me advice.

"When I first took the job as national team coach, I looked at him as something as a mentor.

"He's someone who I have a lot of respect for what he's doing, and I'm looking forward to competing against England."

Asked in what capacity he and Southgate knew each other, Berhalter replied: "I just reached out to him when I got the job and asked if he'd be interested in telling me more about international football.

"Being the guy that Gareth is, he was more than happy to have those conversations and since then we have stayed in touch."

England drew 1-1 with the USA in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup, when a Robert Green howler cost Fabio Capello's Three Lions an opening-game win in South Africa.

Gareth Southgate said England's foremost focus will be getting out of their World Cup group after two of their three opponents were confirmed in Friday's draw.

England, who have reached one major semi-final and one final under Southgate, will open their campaign with a first-ever meeting against Iran on the tournament's opening day on November 21.

They will then face the United States in a repeat of their opening game at the 2010 World Cup, while their final group match could see them face a home nations rival in Wales or Scotland, who will compete with Ukraine for Europe's final qualification place in a play-off that has been delayed due to Ukraine's ongoing conflict with Russia.

On paper, Group B looks set to present a smooth passage to the knockout stages for England but Southgate, who led the Three Lions to a first World Cup semi-final since 1990 four years ago, is not looking any further ahead than the group stages.

"The first two teams we've not played for quite a while," Southgate told BBC Sport. "The third is a total unknown but throws up a possible British derby. We know what they're all about, we've had plenty of them!

"For us, we're in on day one so it's quite clear now what our program looks like, with the end of the Premier League season and getting out here as quickly as possible."

Asked if that knowledge gave England more time to prepare for possible knockout games, Southgate responded: "It does, but we've got to get out of the group.

"What we've done well is approach these tournaments by looking at the group. 

"The first objective is to get out of the group, regardless of the opposition, and then you build from there.

"When you're seeded, you get the advantage of missing out on those big six or seven teams. For most of the first seeds, they'll be pleased with the group they get.

"There's obviously some really high ranked teams in Pot Two, and the US in particular, I know Gregg Berhalter quite well, we've met a couple of times and had long chats about things. 

"They've got some very good players and we know what they could be capable of as a nation. That one, in particular, is an intriguing one."

Furthermore, being drawn into a World Cup group with the United States for a third occasion represents the first time that England have been in the same group as one particular nation at three separate editions of the tournament.

England captain Harry Kane, meanwhile, was glad to see that the Three Lions will open their campaign on the first day of the tournament.

"Always exciting to see who we get in the group!" Kane tweeted. "Playing on the opening day will be incredible as well."

The decision to host the World Cup in Qatar has faced strong opposition from many quarters.

Southgate, who made his opposition to any boycott of the tournament clear during the recent international break, expressed his desire for the World Cup to drive substantive change in the Gulf state.

"We'll continue to speak to people here," he added. "We've got to build relationships here to be able to highlight any change that we'd like to make. 

"It's important to do that in the right way. Today my focus is just on the draw and working out what that all means really."

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

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

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

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

 

How will the draw work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

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

Luck of the draw!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How will the draw work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

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

Luck of the draw!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Pulisic scored a hat-trick as the United States thrashed Panama 5-1 on Sunday to all but secure their place at the 2022 World Cup.

While still not officially assured of a spot in Qatar, only an implausible six-goal midweek defeat to Costa Rica would prevent Gregg Berhalter's side from returning to the tournament after missing out four years ago.

Costa Rica's 2-1 win in El Salvador earlier in the day meant USA were unable to join Canada in making absolutely sure of their qualification, though they went about their business professionally in Orlando.

Pulisic opened the scoring in the 17th minute from the spot after Anibal Godoy was penalised for grappling with Walker Zimmerman, and soon after it was 2-0 as Paul Arriola headed in Antonee Robinson's delivery.

Jesus Ferreira made it 3-0 just before the half-hour mark with a close-range finish and Pulisic ensured they went into the break four up thanks to his second penalty of the day – Godoy was again the guilty party, fouling Miles Robinson.

Pulisic completed his hat-trick in style with 65 minutes played, producing a lovely touch to turn and then convert, though a late Godoy consolation prevented Zack Steffen keeping a clean sheet.

USA need only a point on Wednesday to ensure they are in Friday's World Cup draw, though in reality they could lose 5-0 to fourth-placed Costa Rica and still qualify due to their superior goal difference.

The United States on Monday joined the growing number of nations to refuse to line up against Russia at any level of football.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine last Thursday has led to widespread condemnation across the globe, and the world of sport has also responded strongly.

In football, UEFA stripped St Petersburg of this season's Champions League final and ordered any Russian teams featuring in their club competitions to play their home matches at neutral venues.

Over the weekend, the football associations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic – who were drawn in the same play-off pathway as Russia in next month's World Cup qualifiers – insisted they would not play against the Russian team, while the English FA also stated they would boycott any upcoming matches against Russia at any level.

On Sunday, FIFA announced Russia would have to play all matches under a neutral banner, at neutral venues behind closed doors, without their flag being displayed or their anthem played, although the decision was criticised as it stopped short of a ban on the national team.

The pressure on FIFA to hand out stricter punishment grew further on Monday, as the United States Soccer Federation confirmed it would not play against Russia in a strong statement.

"The U.S. Soccer Federation stands united with the people of Ukraine and is unequivocal in our denunciation of the heinous and inhumane invasion by Russia," the statement read. 

"We will neither tarnish our global name, or dishonour Ukraine, by taking the same field as Russia, no matter the level of competition or circumstance, until freedom and peace have been restored."

Earlier on Monday, the International Olympic Committee said athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus, whose government has abetted the Ukraine invasion through military access, should not be allowed to take part in any international sporting competition.

United States forward Sam Hentges accepted his side could have no complaints after suffering a shock elimination from the men's Winter Olympics ice hockey competition at the hands of Slovakia.

The two-time champions were knocked out at the quarter-final stage for the second Games running with a penalty shoot-out loss in Wednesday's contest at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing.

USA fielded a young side and recovered to lead 2-1 in the closing stages of regulation time, but Marek Hrivik struck with 43 seconds left to force 10 minutes of overtime and it was Slovakia who held their nerve as the contest went the distance.

Peter Cehlarik was the only player to convert his penalty in the shoot-out, with Andy Miele's saved attempt ensuring Slovakia advanced to the final four with a 3-2 victory.

"That's what happens when you don't play well," said Hentges, who gave USA the lead after Nick Abruzzese had cancelled out Juraj Slafkovsky's opener.

"We didn't play well in the second and third period and when you get to this level that's what happens.

"We didn't play how we played the last three games. It's as simple as that, that's why we lost."

USA, who were outshot 36-35 by Slovakia and went 0-for-4 on the power play, end their Beijing 2022 campaign with three wins and a defeat.

Ben Meyers agreed with Hentges that there can be no excuses.

"We played really well in our first three games and this is our first bad game," he said. "Now we are done. 

"I have no complaints at all about anything. I'm just disappointed that we lost this time."

The United States took a big stride towards 2022 World Cup qualification with three set-piece goals in a 3-0 victory over already-eliminated Honduras in freezing Minnesota on Wednesday.

Weston McKennie, Walker Zimmerman and substitute Christian Pulisic netted the goals as USA moved to 21 points from 11 games, rebounding from their 2-0 loss to Canada last time out as they chase qualification for Qatar 2022 after missing out four years ago.

The victory was crucial for second-placed USA to move clear of the chasing pack, with third-placed Mexico to host fourth-placed Panama later on Wednesday.

The temperature dropped to minus 18 degrees in the first half with players from both sides permitted to wear full overhead balaclavas and hand warmers.

Juventus midfielder McKennie opened the scoring with an eighth-minute near-post header from Kellyn Acosta's free-kick, before Nashville defender Zimmerman bundled home a second in the 37th minute from a set piece.

McKennie and Timothy Weah almost combined for a third in the 50th minute only to be thwarted by substitute Honduras goalkeeper Edrick Menjivar.

Chelsea star Pulisic was introduced in the 64th minute and scored three minutes later, volleyed home a loose ball from a corner after Zimmerman's knockdown. Pulisic also had a late goal disallowed for offside.

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

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

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

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

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

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

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

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

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

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