World Cup Qualifiers - Europe

World Cup Qualifiers - Europe (219)

Fernando Santos is confident Portugal can handle the pressure of competing in the World Cup qualifying play-offs.

The Selecao face Turkey in the 'Path C' semi-finals in Porto on Thursday, with the winner of that tie set to take on Italy or North Macedonia next Tuesday.

Portugal have been made to do things the hard way after losing 2-1 to Serbia in November, meaning they missed out on automatic qualification at their opponents' expense.

However, Santos insists the winner-takes-all nature of this week's play-offs can help get the best out of his players, having prevailed in two previous finals during his stewardship.

"What has happened has always been a positive sign," he said at Wednesday's pre-match news conference. "In the two previous finals we've played, we won both.

"In these decisive games we have given a positive response, except in the last game [against Serbia]. The players are experienced and will not be put off.

"We fought hard in those previous finals to make 11 million people happy. Tomorrow, in this next 'final', we want to do so again."

Portugal won Euro 2016 and the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League, beating France and the Netherlands in those respective finals.

The European heavyweights have a big task on their hands if they are to reach Qatar 2022, though, with Turkey and then potentially Italy awaiting over the next six days.

A failure to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1998 could cost Santos his job, but the 67-year-old is not thinking about his future ahead of crucial games.

"That's not the question," said Santos, who has been in charge of the national team since 2014.

"I understand why I'm asked, but I'm totally focused on what we have to play for tomorrow and we know what we have to do. 

"The team is highly focused and motivated. We know that we are here because of our responsibility. We have to win to be in the World Cup.

"All our focus is on this game we have tomorrow against Turkey."

The Czech Republic national team have had to postpone their departure for Sweden, throwing preparations for their World Cup qualification play-off into disarray.

Due to technical faults with the plane on which they were supposed to depart, Jaroslav Silhavy's side has been delayed for 24 hours, meaning they will have to arrive only on the day before their critical play-off in Solna.

A statement read: "The Czech national team has to change the program. We can’t travel to Sweden due to a technical defect on the plane today and we will move to Sweden during Wednesday."

Originally scheduled to leave following their Tuesday morning training session for acclimatisation and rest, this complication compounds the fact they will be without injured stars Patrik Schick and Vladimir Coufal.

The winner of Thursday's playoff is set to face Poland next Tuesday, to secure a berth in Qatar.

Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has tested positive for coronavirus ahead of the friendlies against Denmark and Germany.

Van Gaal is isolating in Woudschoten after returning a positive test on Monday.

Danny Blind, Henk Fraser and Frans Hoek will take on Van Gaal's duties until the Oranje boss is able to link up with the squad again.

Netherlands face Denmark at the Johan Cruijff ArenA on Saturday and take on Germany in Amsterdam three days later.

PSV defender Jordan Teze was last week called up for the upcoming friendlies and is poised to make his debut.

The Oranje qualified for the World Cup in Qatar this year by winning Group G with a 2-0 win over Norway in November.

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini expressed his optimism for World Cup qualification as he called on his Euro 2020-winning side to prove the doubters wrong again.

The Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but followed that up by winning the delayed European Championships last year.

Italy are now staring at a familiar fate, however, after not progressing through their World Cup qualifying group, leaving them having to beat North Macedonia in Thursday's play-off semi-final to keep their Qatar 2022 hopes alive.

Mancini's side would then have to negotiate past Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or Turkey in the final, but the former Manchester City boss spoke optimistically before the clash with North Macedonia in Palermo.

"We should not take the first game for granted. It won't be easy and, in case we win, we'll have four days to prepare for the final," he told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

"We have built a solid base, we are positive and we must think that everything will go well. We have two tough games ahead. We were not supposed to be here, but it happens to struggle sometimes.

"We must continue playing as we've always done. We didn't reach our targets by coincidence. We didn't want to play these games, but the lads are feeling well and that's important.

"I am optimistic because I have players who won the Euros starting from nothing when nobody believed in it. We must think about what we did to have more self-confidence, the team is solid and with quality.

"Our target is to win the World Cup, and in order to do it, we must win the next two games. We want to go to the World Cup to win it."

Mancini has handed maiden call-ups to Luiz Felipe and Joao Pedro, while Lorenzo Insigne and Nicolo Barella made the cut despite underperforming for their clubs.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, whose second-leg blunder proved costly in Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League last-16 loss against Real Madrid, is another familiar face among the Azzurri ranks, and Mancini is backing in the players he has selected.

"I am not worried, they [Insigne and Barella] have always done well with the national team," Mancini said when asked about the pair's form with Napoli and Inter respectively.

"Of course, there are highs and lows during a season. [Giorgio] Chiellini is feeling quite well and it's good that he played a little. 

"He probably won't play two games, but we'll talk and decide together. He knows his condition and he will tell me if he can play two games in five days.

Pressed whether Donnarumma's form was concerning, Mancini responded: "Absolutely not, it's better to have him with us than against."

Mancini also has Domenico Berardi and Gianluca Scamacca to call upon in his frontline, though he is slightly light on numbers at the back due to injuries, with right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo having to be replaced in the squad by Mattia De Sciglio.

"Berardi and Scamacca are doing well, but I can't reveal the line-up today. We'll make our assessments starting from tomorrow. Except for defenders, the others are feeling quite well," Mancini said.

"I don't think there are big problems in midfield and attack."

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini has left out Mario Balotelli from his squad for the upcoming World Cup playoffs, while handing maiden call-ups to Joao Pedro and Luiz Felipe.

The Azzurri failed to top their World Cup qualifying group, which leaves them having to beat North Macedonia in the playoff semi-finals on Thursday to set up a meeting against Turkey or Portugal five days later.

The draw means one of the two previous European Championship winners, Portugal and Italy, will not feature at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Mancini has named a 33-man squad for the upcoming clash against North Macedonia in Palermo, with Balotelli snubbed for the introduction of Cagliari forward Joao Pedro, who was born in Brazil but has an Italian passport.

Lazio defender Luiz Felipe also qualifies under the same criteria and he features in the Italy squad for the first time, while Federico Chiesa and Leonardo Spinazzola miss out through injury.

Moise Kean, Alessio Romagnoli and Davide Calabria were also notable omissions, with Cristiano Biraghi expected to take Spinazzola's full-back spot and Roma's Nicolo Zaniolo filling in for Chiesa.

Matteo Politano, Stefano Sensi and Pierluigi Gollini - who replaces the injured Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret - all return, with Manuel Locatelli called up despite testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

Locatelli's Juventus colleague Leonardo Bonucci has made the squad even though he suffered a reoccurring problem with his calf in Wednesday's 3-0 Champions League aggregate loss to Villarreal.

Italy squad:

Alessio Cragno (Cagliari), Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris Saint-Germain), Pierluigi Gollini (Tottenham), Salvatore Sirigu (Genoa); Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Cristiano Biraghi (Fiorentina), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Emerson Palmieri (Lyon), Alessandro Florenzi (Milan), Luiz Felipe (Lazio), Gianluca Mancini (Roma); Nicolo Barella (Inter), Bryan Cristante (Roma), Jorginho (Chelsea), Manuel Locatelli (Juventus), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma), Matteo Pessina (Atalanta), Stefano Sensi (Sampdoria), Sandro Tonali (Milan), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain); Andrea Belotti (Torino), Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Joao Pedro (Cagliari), Matteo Politano (Napoli), Giacomo Raspadori (Sassuolo), Gianluca Scamacca (Sassuolo) Mattia Zaccagni (Lazio), Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma).

A request from Russia to freeze the ban on its football teams in FIFA competitions has been turned down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

CAS made a similar announcement on Tuesday regarding UEFA competitions, and this latest decision all but confirms that Russia will not be a part of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with their qualifying play-off semi-final due to be played next Thursday.

Russia had been scheduled to face Poland, but FIFA instead handed their opponents a bye to the final of their play-off route.

Poland will now play either Sweden or the Czech Republic – with that semi-final on March 24 still set to go ahead – for a place at Qatar 2022.

Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic each announced they would refuse to play Russia due to the ongoing events in Ukraine.

The Russian Football Union lodged an appeal to CAS after its clubs and national team were banned from all FIFA and UEFA competitions "until further notice".

The joint-decision taken by FIFA and UEFA followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago.

Russia "categorically disagreed" with the ban and submitted its appeal, while also seeking an initial stay of execution.

However, CAS confirmed on Friday that it has rejected that request, confirming that "the Challenged Decision remains in force" during proceedings.

A media release from CAS read: "The President of the Appeals Arbitration Division of the Court of Arbitration for Sport has rejected the request filed by the Football Union of Russia (FUR) to stay, for the duration of the CAS proceedings, the execution of the FIFA Council's decision to suspend all Russian teams and clubs from participation in its competitions until further notice (the Challenged decision).

"Accordingly, the Challenged Decision remains in force and all Russian teams and clubs continue to be suspended from participation in FIFA competitions. The CAS arbitration proceedings continue. A Panel of arbitrators is currently being constituted and the parties are exchanging written submissions. No hearing has been fixed yet."

Manchester City defender Ruben Dias has been left out of Portugal's squad for this month's crucial World Cup play-offs, as the 24-year-old continues his recovery from a hamstring injury.

The central defender has been out of action since sustaining the injury in the Premier League champions' FA Cup win over Peterborough United last month.

Fernando Santos will also be unable to call upon fellow injury absences Renato Sanches and Nelson Semedo, as he seeks to avoid being the first Portugal coach to fail to qualify for a major tournament since the country missed out on the 1998 World Cup in France.

After a last-gasp 2-1 loss to Serbia saw Portugal fail to qualify automatically for the World Cup, Portugal will host Turkey in a play-off semi-final on March 24, before the winner of that clash takes on either Italy or North Macedonia five days later for a place in Qatar.

Dias was named Premier League player of the season for the 2020-21 campaign, and has contributed to the league leaders keeping a joint-high 17 clean sheets in 29 top-flight games this term. 

In Dias' absence, uncapped Sporting CP defender Goncalo Inacio gets his second senior call-up, with 38-year-old Lille defender Jose Fonte and Porto's 39-year-old stalwart Pepe likely to form an experienced defensive partnership.

Cristiano Ronaldo, who has hit 115 goals in 184 appearances for his country's senior team, is one of three Manchester United players to make the squad, being joined by Diego Dalot and Bruno Fernandes.

Speaking to the press after announcing his squad, Santos emphasised the importance of the Turkey match, and insisted his 37-year-old captain remains a crucial part of his group.

"We have to win," said the Euro 2016 winner. "We have a goal, we have to fulfil it, it's a goal of the people. 

"All the national team's games will always be very important for the people. [We must] play for Portugal, as there have been others who have marked the history of Portuguese football.

"More important than anything is Portugal. That is the case for us and for the people that we are going to play for, and that also includes our captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who is a very important piece."

Although Dias will not play any part in the crucial match-up with Turkey, club team-mates Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva have both been named in Santos' squad.

Portugal squad: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Diogo Costa (FC Porto), Rui Patricio (Roma); Cedric Soares (Arsenal), Joao Cancelo (Manchester City), Diogo Dalot (Manchester United), Goncalo Inacio (Sporting CP), Jose Fonte (Lille), Pepe (FC Porto), Nuno Mendes (Paris Saint-Germain), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund); Danilo Pereira (Paris Saint-Germain), Matheus Nunes (Sporting CP), William Carvalho (Real Betis), Ruben Neves (Wolves), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Joao Moutinho (Wolves), Otavio Monteiro (FC Porto); Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid), Diogo Jota (Liverpool), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Rafael Leao (Milan); Andre Silva (RB Leipzig), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United).

England boss Gareth Southgate said Marcus Rashford is "clearly not at his best" after dropping the out-of-form Manchester United forward.

The 24-year-old has registered just six goal involvements in 19 Premier League appearances in a frustrating campaign for the Red Devils, and will not feature in England's upcoming home friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast.

Rashford has earned 46 caps for his country and scored 12 international goals, his last strike coming against Romania in a pre-Euro 2020 friendly last June.

But the forward has made just 10 league starts for United this season, leading to suggestions he could seek to leave Old Trafford in the summer, ahead of the World Cup at the end of the year.

"He is in the same position as everyone else, whether they are in the squad or not," Southgate said. "They've all got to play well towards the end of this season and, in particular, at the beginning of next season.

"It is a difficult time for him, he's clearly not at his best, but there is plenty of time. We know what Marcus can bring, and hopefully, he can rediscover the form he's capable of."

 Rashford was not the only United attacker to be left out of Southgate's squad, with Jadon Sancho remaining absent despite registering five goal involvements in his last six Premier League appearances, having recorded just one in his first 18.

Southgate acknowledged Sancho's club form has improved after the winger made a slow start to his United career, stating his absence was due to the competition provided by England's other attackers.

"You just have to look at the other attacking players in the squad: Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Phil Foden," the England boss said. "Jadon's performances have improved at Manchester United, but it is an area where we have big competition for places."

Southgate also left Manchester City right-back Kyle Walker out of his latest group but was keen to emphasise the upcoming games represent an opportunity to look at other right-back options.

"I had a chat with Kyle; we felt this was an opportunity to have a look at the two younger full-backs," Southgate said.

"We know all there is to know about Kyle; he's a very important player, and he'll be back with us in June [for Nations League matches].

"We are very happy with what he's done. He's been a huge part of the progress we've made with this team, and you can see in the biggest matches with Manchester City this year, he's still been a key player for them.

"These young full-backs [Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James] are exciting."

The England boss also hit back at suggestions Manchester United defender Harry Maguire could have missed out on the squad, highlighting his importance to England despite there having been recent criticism of his displays at club level.

"There wasn't a chance we weren't going to call him up," Southgate said. "He's one of our best centre-backs."

Scotland remain in contact with FIFA and UEFA regarding World Cup qualifiers against Ukraine, while the Scottish FA (SFA) confirmed they will boycott fixtures with Russia amid the ongoing conflict.

Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine on Thursday, with the fighting escalating over the weekend after weeks of heightening political tensions between the two countries.

The conflict has been widely condemned, with sporting, political and financial sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus in an attempt to deter the pair from continuing with the attacks.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) urged action as they called on international sporting federations to relocate or cancel any events set to take place in Russia or Belarus.

UEFA subsequently acted by stripping St Petersburg of the 2021-22 Champions League final, while Formula One removed the Russian Grand Prix from its 2022 calendar.

A plethora of international sporting stars, including Russian tennis stars Andrey Rubley and Daniil Medvedev, have demanded peace as they condemned war.

The SFA has followed suit by offering support to Ukraine, who Scotland's men are scheduled to face in a World Cup play-off semi-final on 24 March with the women's teams set to meet on 8 April.

"The Scottish FA President, Rod Petrie, has written to his counterpart at the Ukrainian Association of Football to send a message of support, friendship, and unity," a statement from the SFA read on Monday.

"Football is inconsequential amid conflict but we have conveyed the strong sense of solidarity communicated to us by Scotland fans and citizens in recent days.

"We remain in dialogue with UEFA and FIFA regarding our men's FIFA World Cup play-off and women's World Cup qualifier and have offered to support our Ukrainian colleagues' preparations as best we can in these unimaginably difficult circumstances.

"Should the current circumstances continue, we will not sanction the nomination of a team to participate in our scheduled UEFA Regions Cup fixture against Russia, due to be played in August.

"This will remain our position should any other fixtures arise at any level of international football."

FIFA has confirmed Russia must compete in their upcoming matches as the Football Union of Russia (RFU).

The order from world football's governing body comes in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began on Thursday, with fighting having escalated over the weekend.

FIFA has been put under increasing pressure to sanction Russia, with UEFA having already stripped St Petersburg of this season's Champions League final, while the football associations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic all jointly outlined their refusal to play Russia.

This cast doubt over next month's World Cup qualifiers, with Poland set to face Russia in a play-off semi-final, with the winner of that match to play either Sweden or the Czech Republic for a place in Qatar.

On Sunday, FIFA confirmed Russia would have to play under a neutral banner of the RFU, similar to how the International Olympic Committee had the country's athletes represent the Russian Olympic Committee following a state-sponsored doping scandal.

Russia's flag cannot be displayed, nor can their anthem be played, and all of their home matches must now take place at a neutral venue, behind closed doors.

A statement read: "FIFA would like to reiterate its condemnation of the use of force by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Violence is never a solution and FIFA expresses its deepest solidarity to all people affected by what is happening in Ukraine.

"FIFA calls again for the urgent restoration of peace and for constructive dialogue to commence immediately. FIFA remains in close contact with the Ukrainian Association of Football and members of the Ukrainian football community who have been requesting support to leave the country for as long as the current conflict persists."

"With regard to the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers, FIFA has taken good note of the positions expressed via social media by the Polish Football Association, the Football Association of the Czech Republic and the Swedish Football Association and has already engaged in dialogue with all of these football associations. FIFA will remain in close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together."

However, FIFA's sanctions do not go far enough, according to Polish FA president Cezary Kulesza, who tweeted: "Today's FIFA decision is totally unacceptable.

"We are not interested in participating in this game of appearances. Our stance remains intact: Polish National Team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team is."

FIFA's sanctions followed on from the English FA confirming it would boycott any upcoming matches against Russia for the foreseeable future, at any level.

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