Five international newcomers pushing for a late World Cup berth

By Sports Desk September 21, 2022

The World Cup in Qatar is now just two months away and the first international break of the season is the final opportunity for squads to convene before coming together for the tournament.

In Europe, the Nations League offers competitive action in the build-up to Qatar, while teams elsewhere will face friendlies.

With a mid-season window and just one break before the action commences in November, it presents a challenge for any new faces to establish themselves in their international side before the squad for the World Cup is selected.

Some have been handed glorious opportunities though and Stats Perform has assessed some of the newcomers.

 

Ivan Toney

England's main striker role is nailed down by skipper Harry Kane but the role of understudy is a competitive one with the likes of Callum Wilson, Tammy Abraham and Ollie Watkins having earned opportunities – and Ivan Toney is the latest to join that list.

Quickly settling into life in the Premier League, Toney netted 12 goals for Brentford in their inaugural campaign last season but has hit new heights in 2022, scoring 13 goals this calendar year.

Toney doesn't just offer goals, though, as he has also contributed seven assists since August 2021, totalling 24 goal involvements (17 goals, 7 assists) in that period, with Kane (31) the only English player to have more in the Premier League.

This season, Toney has five goals and two assists for Brentford, with a tally of seven goal involvements only bettered by Erling Haaland (12) in the Premier League.

Nico Williams

Brother of Inaki Williams, capped once by Spain in a friendly before switching allegiances to Ghana, 20-year-old Nico Williams has been handed a chance by Luis Enrique, who insists the decision is not to ensure he doesn't follow in the footsteps of his sibling.

The right-winger has established himself in Athletic Bilbao's first-team and has made a firm impact this season, scoring twice – including in the recent 3-2 victory over Rayo Vallecano, which marked the first time both he and Inaki had scored in the same match.

Williams' role with Athletic will continue to grow, having only recently become a regular starter for the Basque side towards the end of last season and now starting five of Athletic's six LaLiga matches.

Securing a spot on the plane for Qatar will not be easy considering the vast competition, but Williams may get his opportunity due to his age, with a forward line of the future potentially being created alongside Yeremy Pino and Ferran Torres.

Kenneth Taylor

Only earning his first start for Ajax in the Eredivisie last season, Kenneth Taylor has become a mainstay in the side this term with five starts across six league appearances for the Dutch champions, following Ryan Gravenberch's move to Bayern Munich.

The 20-year-old has grabbed his opportunity with both hands, scoring three goals and contributing two assists in the league. His control on the ball has also been impressive, misplacing 41 of 352 passing attempts in the Eredivisie for an accuracy of 88 per cent.

In the Champions League, Taylor has yet find the net or contribute an assist, but he has caught the eye. In the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool, he won three tackles, the joint-most in the Ajax side, and completed 92 per cent of his passes.

Those performances have earned Taylor a call-up to Louis van Gaal's squad ahead of Gravenberch, who has been capped 10 times by the Netherlands but has found playing time difficult to come by since moving to Bayern.

Enzo Fernandez

Only arriving at Benfica from River Plate ahead of the current season, Enzo Fernandez has quickly made an impression in Portugal, where he was named the Primeira Liga's Midfielder of the Month.

In the third qualifying round of the Champions League, the Argentine struck in both legs against Midtjylland and made a significant impression in the 2-1 group stage win against Juventus – with the most touches (92), pass attempts (71) and accurate passes (68) of his team, as well as the highest pass completion percentage (96%).

He also won 12 duels and won possession on 12 occasions, both tallies that were bettered by none of his team-mates.

His form has already seen him linked with Liverpool, just months after his arrival in European football, and the 21-year-old could be once to watch in Qatar if he secures a seat on the plane.

 

Borja Iglesias

At the age of 29, Borja Iglesias is finally poised to make his international bow with Spain after a sensational calendar year in which he has scored 18 LaLiga goals – with only Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (28) scoring more.

Six of those goals have come in the opening six matches of the 2022-23 season, from which Real Betis have won 15 points to sit behind only Barcelona and Real Madrid in the early-season standings.

Robert Lewandowski (8) is the sole player to score more LaLiga goals than Iglesias this season and he has averaged a goal every 103 minutes, though he is yet to feature in the club's Europa League campaign thus far.

Spain's lack of central striking options may well play into Iglesias' hands in his bid to make the World Cup squad, with the 28-man party for September's Nations League fixtures having only Alvaro Morata as the other natural option through the middle.

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  • Martinez rues 'huge disappointment' after Belgium crash out of World Cup Martinez rues 'huge disappointment' after Belgium crash out of World Cup

    Departing Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez revealed his "huge disappointment" after the Red Devils crashed out of the World Cup.

    The world's second-ranked side suffered a surprise elimination in Qatar after finishing third in Group F following a goalless draw with Croatia.

    It brought the curtain down on a poor tournament for 2018 semi-finalists Belgium, who struggled past Canada in their opening game before suffering a shock defeat by eventual group winners Morocco.

    The Croatia stalemate also spelt the end for Martinez, who confirmed his departure as Belgium head coach after six years in the role.

    "We were ourselves today," he reflected. "We had very good performances and frustrated Croatia in the first half, but couldn't take chances in the second half.

    "We got in very good positions, but didn't execute them well. Second half, we looked strong and probably created more clear-cut chances than in 2018.

    "We showed heart, and we saw a group that really cares, which we missed in previous two games - we weren't ourselves [in the first two games].

    "Due to quality and experience, we won the first game [against Canada], but we were not ourselves. Today was completely different.

    "Morocco was disappointing, and we're out of the World Cup because margins are small - there's no margin for error. Morocco took their chances and Croatia now rightly progress through. It's a huge disappointment for us."

    Martinez also explained his reasons for Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, who was only introduced in the 87th minute at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, starting Belgium's must-win showdown on the bench.

    It came after a tumultuous week, in which he dismissed reports of a rift within the camp as "fake news" at his pre-match news conference.

    "Lukaku couldn't play the 90. We saw in the second half, he lacked physicality," Martinez said. 

    "We used him where there were bigger gaps and got him in the box. He moved well and got in good positions, but missed chances.

    "I'm happy with the way we planned for this game. The players that started gave us what we wanted, and then we could have scored three goals in second half, and it would have been a different story.

    "We were here for seven games and couldn't take a risk on players, it would not have been responsible to play [Lukaku] from the start, same with Eden Hazard."

    Much of the discussion surrounding Belgium's underwhelming campaign in Qatar has focused on the ageing of a so-called 'golden generation' of players, with Kevin De Bruyne stating the Red Devils' squad was "too old" ahead of the finals.

    Defender Toby Alderweireld insisted the senior players within the squad are yet to make a decision on their futures.

    "I think as a team, you have to take the responsibility," he added. "I think we played a very good game. We could have won.

    "I think we lost the qualification in the last game against Morocco. If we didn't lose this game, it was a total different game. This is the reality. It hurts.

    "It's not every year that there's a tournament. We'll see what everyone is doing, but I think it's too close to the last game to decide.

    "Everyone goes home now, goes to their club and decides what they're going to do. This hurts, it's normal, but decisions are not made after the game."

  • Cameroon v Brazil: Much-changed Selecao pursuing group-stage perfection Cameroon v Brazil: Much-changed Selecao pursuing group-stage perfection

    Tite will rotate his Brazil squad for their final Group G match, but opponents Cameroon still face an uphill battle to make the last 16 of the World Cup.

    Brazil are already through to the knockout stage and will top the pool unless they lose and Switzerland win with a significant goal swing.

    Opponents Cameroon have plenty still to play for, on the other hand, as they must win to have any hope of reaching the second round for the first time since 1990.

    They have never won their final group game at a finals, however, while Brazil are unbeaten at this stage in a record 17 matches.

    And the Selecao have their own goals in mind, looking to take nine points from a possible nine for the first time since 2006.

    "Being first is always the goal, regardless of who the opponent is in the next match," said Fabinho, one of the men set to come into the XI.

    "Our focus is always to win the games, try to earn nine points and give our best. 

    "Whoever will play will have the opportunity to wear the shirt of the Brazilian national team in a World Cup, so the thought of a winning team has to always be this, to enter, give the best, win and be the first."

    Tite's first-choice stars have set a high standard, winning both games without conceding or even facing a single shot on target. They are the first team not to face a shot on target in their first two games at a World Cup since France in 1998.

    "Personally, I don't think [maintaining the standard] brings pressure to us," added Fabinho. "I think playing in a World Cup is every player's dream. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

    "We have to face this with great joy, knowing the responsibility, come in and give our best. We know the way the team plays, the team is solid defensively.

    "Sure, you have the worries of keeping that, the ideas, but I don't think it adds pressure. We don't feel that."

    Cameroon have lost only two World Cup matches to South American teams, but both have been in their two meetings with Brazil, who have won all seven of their finals clashes with African opposition, scoring 20 goals and conceding just two.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Cameroon – Vincent Aboubakar

    Aboubakar has twice appeared from the bench, yet he could hardly have done more to earn a starting berth. Against Serbia, he became the first substitute to both score and assist a goal in a World Cup match for an African nation, bringing Cameroon back from 3-1 down to 3-3 within 11 minutes of his introduction.

    Brazil – Vinicius Junior

    The Selecao may not need to risk playing Vinicius, with Neymar already injured, but it must be tough not to pick a man in this form. Only Kylian Mbappe (23) was involved in more open play sequences that ended with a shot than the winger (15) through two matchdays. Only Mbappe and Ismaila Sarr (four) created more chances following a carry (three).

    PREDICTION

    Even with the potential for changes in the Brazil XI, the supercomputer has no doubts about this one. Tite's men are massive 72.7 per cent favourites.

    Cameroon must win but are given only a 10.6 per cent chance, with a draw that would confirm Brazil as group winners rated at 16.7 per cent.

  • Serbia v Switzerland: Milinkovic-Savic happy with must-win situation Serbia v Switzerland: Milinkovic-Savic happy with must-win situation

    Serbia midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would have accepted knowing a win in their final Group G game against Switzerland would likely be enough to secure progression to the World Cup knockout stages.

    Dragan Stojkovic's side have taken just one point from their two games so far, coming in a 3-3 draw against Cameroon last time out, but are still in with a chance of going through, although they need Cameroon to lose to Brazil.

    Assuming that happens, a Serbia win would be enough with Switzerland requiring just a draw.

    They find themselves in a perilous position but Milinkovic-Savic insists it is not a surprise. Asked if he would have taken this situation beforehand, he said: "Of course. When we saw the draw and the schedule, we knew that everything would depend on the last game.

    "We need to take this opportunity with both hands."

    Serbia's draw with Cameroon was arguably an opportunity lost given they were leading 3-1 in the second half.

    Captain Dusan Tadic said: "It's certainly hard because we led 3-1 and you're not happy when you end up with a draw.

    "We created a lot of chances, but of course the goals we conceded should not happen. It starts with the midfield and the defence. We know now we need a win in the last round."

    Avoiding defeat is likely to be enough for the Swiss, but boss Murat Yakin will send his players out with clear instructions to try to win the game.

    He said: "We’ll have to find the right balance. I think we can be the dominant team, we’ve proven that in the past. It will be exciting, we'll need a good start. 

    "As a head coach, you can’t send out a team and tell them a draw is enough.

    "Of course we want to try to win this game, we know we have the skills and quality to do so. Hopefully we’ll be well prepared, and then I’m convinced we’ll be the dominant team, we will take more risks.

    "It will be an exciting game, we want to focus on football, everything else I don’t really care about."


    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Serbia - Aleksandar Mitrovic

    The Fulham striker produced a mixed performance in the draw with Cameroon. While he was a nuisance all afternoon and scored a goal, he failed to capitalise on many of the chances that came his way. Twice in the first half he should have done better while he also missed another clear opportunity in the closing stages.

    He will need to improve markedly if Serbia are to get the win they require.

    Switzerland - Yann Sommer

    A clean sheet would likely guarantee Switzerland's progression, and Yakin will be reassured by the fact he can count on one of the tournament's in-form goalkeepers.

    Only two men have made more saves than Sommer's nine, the Netherlands' Andries Noppert (albeit from three matches rather than Sommer's two) and his opposite number on Friday, Vanja Milinkovic-Savic (12).


    PREDICTION

    Stats Perform's AI model believes all three outcomes are a distinct possibility with little to separate them.

    Serbia are ranked a 39 per cent chance to claim the three points they require, with Switzerland a 34.6 per cent chance. A draw comes in at 26.4 per cent. As is often the case, it will come down to fine margins - a mistake or a moment of genius.

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