Qatar 2022

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African teams should be confident of going far in the World Cup, and even winning the tournament, according to Senegal boss Aliou Cisse.

Senegal beat hosts Qatar 3-1 on Friday to get their first points on the board in Group A.

The Africa Cup of Nations winners lost star player Sadio Mane to injury before the start of the World Cup, and were unable to put away their chances in an opening loss against the Netherlands.

But Cisse believes his team, as well as other African sides in action in the Middle East – Cameroon, Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia – should have faith they can challenge the top nations.

Cisse pointed to the shock wins for Japan and Saudi Arabia, over Germany and Argentina respectively, as evidence to support his claim.

"Just look at how the World Cup is unfolding, with a lot of surprises," Cisse said.

"We've seen David bring down Goliath. Japan beat Germany, Saudi Arabia beat Argentina – anything is possible.

"All teams competing are worthy of being here. It's not like 30 years ago where the big fish were completely neutralising the smaller teams.

"I think it will be a World Cup full of surprises. Yes, an African country can win the World Cup, and I hope that country is Senegal!"

With their win over Qatar, Senegal became the first African side to beat the host nation at a World Cup; all of the previous four instances of an African side facing the hosts had seen them lose by an aggregate 12-2 score.

Cisse had called on his forwards to improve after the defeat to the Dutch. Boulaye Dia, Famara Diedhiou and Bamba Dieng answered their coach's call.

"Yes, we understood the message loud and clear," said Dia, when asked by Stats Perform if he felt the Senegal forwards had done what was asked of them.

"We were not efficient against the Netherlands. We had lots of scoring chances, we should have put some away.

"The coach honed in on this: efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. We need to get in front of the goal and create those chances.

"We're all very happy, all of the forwards able to score – happy days!"

The FIFA World Cup Golden Ball award should be renamed in Diego Maradona's honour, according to ex-Argentina team-mate Nery Pumpido.

The former Argentina captain, who won the award after leading his country to World Cup glory in 1986, was remembered at an event to mark the second anniversary of his death.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Maradona should be remembered at each subsequent tournament with a day of celebration for his significant impact on football.

Pumpido - goalkeeper of the victorious side in Mexico 36 years ago - believes his former team-mate could be honoured with a subsequent renaming of the Golden Ball, awarded to the best player at every World Cup Finals.

"It would be great if the award for the best player of the World Cup was renamed Diego Armando Maradona," he said. "It's a good idea."

Pumpido was one of many former Argentina players in attendance. Among them were 1978 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol, who felt "a tremendous source of pride" at honouring Maradona.

Meanwhile Jorge Valdano - the scorer of La Albiceleste's second goal in their 1986 final win over West Germany - fondly remembers his former captain's impact on the tournament in Mexico.

That included his inspirational display against England in the quarter-finals - the infamous 'Hand of God' goal accompanied by one of the greatest individual efforts in history.

"Like the great maestros of painting, he made sketches during the [1986] World Cup," Valdano said. "I remember the game against Uruguay in the round of 16, where Diego was unstoppable,

"I thought that it was impossible to play better than what Diego played that day, but no, that was just a sketch for his definitive work and like all maestros, he chose the right day, the right opponent, the right place for his work - against England.

"[Against England] he completed his most wonderful work that took him to another place. From that day, he became a hero, he became a legend, he became a symbol and that is why we are here.

"He did nothing more than elevate the Argentine national team and also world football. I propose that, despite the fact that the remembrance is necessarily sad, to remember him with joy. 

"If Diego has left us something, it is a debt of happiness and gratitude. I am very happy that he is still so present in all of us as this extraordinary call shows."

Argentina's latest quest for a third World Cup title - and what could be Lionel Messi's final shot at glory - began with a shock 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia in Group C, from which they will seek a response against Mexico on Saturday.

The ultimate prize in football is the only one missing from Messi's well-stocked cabinet after an astonishing career, but former midfielder Daniel Bertoni, who lifted the trophy in 1978, insists the Paris Saint-Germain forward needs help in his mission.

"Messi's legacy? He has to be a champion," he said. "It's not an obligation, the World Cup is not won by one player alone.

"Messi is the ace of spades, you have to put the other cards around him, I think he has to be accompanied by the team."

The Netherlands missed the chance to become the first team at the World Cup to cement a last-16 place as Ecuador's Enner Valencia cancelled out Cody Gakpo's sublime strike in Friday's 1-1 draw. 

As in Monday's win over Senegal, Louis van Gaal's team were far from their fluid best, though they still took an early lead when in-demand forward Gakpo rifled in from 20 yards.

However, Ecuador were lively throughout and were good value for their leveller, which made Valencia just the fourth player in World Cup history to score six consecutive goals for a nation at the tournament, though the striker was forced off injured just before the end of the contest.

That could impact his hopes of landing the Golden Boot, but Valencia's strike kept Ecuador and the Oranje locked together on four points in Group A, and condemned hosts Qatar to an early exit after their 3-1 defeat to Senegal.

The Netherlands needed just six minutes to take the lead, and they did so in spectacular fashion as Gakpo latched onto Davy Klaassen's flick-on before hammering into the top-left corner.

Ecuador offered a positive response to that setback, however, forcing Virgil van Dijk into two last-ditch interventions before Valencia tested Andries Noppert from range.

La Tri thought they had found a leveller on the stroke of half-time, but Pervis Estupinan's instinctive finish was chalked off after the offside Jackson Porozo was ruled to have blocked Noppert's view.

Ecuador were not to be denied again within four minutes of the restart though, as Valencia pounced to tap home the rebound when Noppert saved Estupinan's effort.

Gustavo Alfaro's side almost capped an encouraging display with a second when Gonzalo Plata rattled the crossbar with a fine left-footed effort.

However, Ecuador's mood was dampened by a significant blow in the closing exchanges as Valencia was carried off on a stretcher after going down clutching his knee.

Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand is not frightened by Kylian Mbappe but conceded there is only so much you can do to stop the France striker.

Mbappe scored in Les Bleus' 4-1 win against Australia in their World Cup Group D opener on Tuesday and looked razor sharp alongside Olivier Giroud.

Hjulmand's men ground out a goalless draw against Tunisia, although keeping another clean sheet against the defending champions may be trickier to achieve.

Asked if he was frightened at the thought of trying to keep Mbappe quiet, Hjulmand replied: "I don't think it's good to be frightened. We have plans to stop him. At Parken [in September] we had a good plan, a good structure. He had two or three chances and no matter what plans you have against top players, you can't keep them down.

"We have carried out plenty of analysis to try to minimise his impact, we don't want him to show the talent he has."

Hjulmand is hoping some insider knowledge will also help stifle France's threat with captain Simon Kjaer a team-mate of Giroud at Milan.

He added: "I hope it's an advantage. A player like Giroud is very good at what he does. It's a pleasure seeing so many strikers in the latter stages of their careers showing how to move in the box, showing how to be dangerous in their positioning and showing how to finish in the box.

"Giroud is better now than he was before, he is very dangerous. Simon knows him very well and we have been talking about the small details."

Denmark enjoyed back-to-back wins against Didier Deschamps' side in the Nations League earlier this year but Hjulmand knows facing them at a World Cup is a different proposition.

"We have tested them a couple of times but this is a different tournament," he said. "But we know that if we play our best we have a chance of getting a good result.

"To be able to do that, we have to take a big step forward in quality from the first match."

Denmark and France kick off six hours after the other Group D encounter between Australia and Tunisia, and Hjulmand admitted the result of that game could affect his approach to the game.

"I won't watch that game, but I will obviously know the outcome as it will influence how we approach our game," he said.

"I am only really talking about the last 25 minutes. We are focused on winning the match but the other game will influence our approach."

Qatar head coach Felix Sanchez described Qatar 2022 as a "great World Cup" despite his side being on the verge of elimination following a 3-1 defeat to Senegal on Friday.

Mohammed Muntari gave them hope of snatching a point after Boulaye Dia and Famara Diedhiou had put Senegal 2-0 up, yet substitute Bamba Dieng rounded off Senegal's victory six minutes from time.

The result saw them became only the third host nation to concede three goals in a single group stage game, after South Africa in 2010 and Russia in 2018 (both 3-0 defeats to Uruguay).

Despite the disappointment of a likely early exit, Sanchez was full of praise for the tournament – the first to be held in the Middle East.

"We are aware of how tough this competition is, we wanted to go far but we have some limitations in our country," he said.

"It’s small, we play in a local league that is not the most competitive, but we have made a great effort.

"Expectations were to give good performances and organise a good World Cup. We wanted to show what we can do on the pitch.

"Most of the opponents are ahead of us but the players performed very well. Some moments we managed to compete.

"It's our first World Cup participation. If we could take part in it again, great.

"We want this to be a great World Cup at all levels. That's what we are experiencing – a great World Cup, full stadiums and good matches.

"We are very happy with the attendance. I think they really supported us and we're very proud of our fans who came here to show their support through the game.

Qatar round off their Group A campaign against the Netherlands next week, with Sanchez adamant his side will give everything they have got against Louis van Gaal's more illustrious opponents.

"We have a very tough game ahead of us," he added. "We intend to be competitive. We cannot miss a chance like this to play against the Netherlands, so our plan, the goal is to play a good game.

"We will be facing a team that hopes to go far in the World Cup. The key here is this country has a goal in mind. The World Cup will finish, but football will continue here. We want to keep developing talent, keep competing in Asia."

Neymar and Danilo have been ruled out of Brazil's clash with Switzerland through injury.

Both players sustained ankle problems in Thursday's 2-0 win over Serbia with Neymar later seen in tears on the bench after being caught by a strong challenge from Nikola Milenkovic.

Brazilian media were speculating the Paris Saint-Germain forward was unlikely to play again until the knockout phase but doctor Rodrigo Lasmar would only go as far as confirming both players would not be ready to take on Switzerland on Monday.

He said: "Neymar and Danilo started treatment on their injuries immediately after our match on Thursday.

"This morning they were re-evaluated, we thought it was important to have MRI scans in order to have further information regarding the recovery of both players.

"The scans showed a lateral ligament injury on Neymar's right ankle and a medial ligament injury on Danilo's left ankle.

"Both players remain in treatment. It's very important that we remain calm, tranquil and we will re-evaluate daily, in order to have the best information and make the best decisions regarding the injuries.

"We can tell you that both players will not play in the next match, but they remain in treatment and our objective is for them to recover in time for the rest of the competition."

 

The loss to injury of Neymar - Brazil's star man - should come as no surprise as he was once again targeted by the opposition at the Lusail Stadium.

He was fouled nine times by Serbia players, one shy of his own Brazil World Cup record (10 versus Switzerland in 2018), before being substituted with 10 minutes to play.

Across the 2014 and 2018 World Cups combined, Neymar was fouled a leading 44 times – or once every 21 minutes, more often than any other player impeded on at least 25 occasions.

Denmark defender Andreas Christensen is not afraid of going up against world champions France, despite Les Bleus' plethora of attacking talent.

France were dealt several injury blows before arriving in Qatar, with N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and then Christopher Nkunku all ruled out.

The biggest hit to Didier Deschamps came on the eve of the tournament, however, when Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema suffered a quadriceps injury.

Yet France had little bother brushing aside Australia in their Group D opener, coming from behind to win 4-1 on Tuesday. Olivier Giroud scored twice to match Thierry Henry as Les Bleus' record goalscorer, while Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele all looked sharp.

As Denmark drew 0-0 with Tunisia, it means a win for France in Saturday's match at Stadium 974 would see them through into the round of 16.

Christensen, though, sees no reason to be afraid, even if he knows two France attackers - Barcelona club-mate Dembele and former Chelsea team-mate Giroud - particularly well.

"I don't know if afraid would be the right word. I think we can use it," he told reporters.

"We know the other players. We already did know quite a lot. But I think the typical French, they always believe in their abilities and with reason.

"I think they are amazing players and I think everyone at [Barca] was really happy when Ousmane signed his new contract. He means a lot for the team and means a lot for the creativity that we have in the team.

"And the same for Ollie, you can just see how many goals he scores and again means a lot for the team. I know they're both really big characters. So yeah, they are great players and it's going to be good to see them again."

 

Thanks to their win over Australia, France became the first reigning champion to win their opening World Cup match of a tournament since Brazil in 2006.

Only four previous defending champions have won their opening two matches of a World Cup campaign.

While France have won each of their last five World Cup games (the last nation to win six in a row was Spain in 2010), Denmark have drawn their last three matches in the competition.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France – Olivier Giroud

Giroud, hunting his record-breaking 52nd international goal, could become only the second player aged 36 or over to score in back-to-back World Cup appearances, after Tom Finney for England in 1958 (36y 64d).

France have scored four goals in both of their last two World Cup games, the 2018 final against Croatia and this year against Australia, so Giroud should have plenty of service, though Denmark have kept a clean sheet in three of their last five World Cup games, just one fewer than they had managed in their first 16 games in the competition.

Denmark – Christian Eriksen

It took a while for Eriksen to get going against Tunisia, but when he clicked into gear in the second half, Denmark stepped up the pressure.

The playmaker created more chances than any other player in the game (five). Indeed, only Michael Laudrup (six against Nigeria in 1998) has ever created more opportunities in a single World Cup match for Denmark.

PREDICTION

Denmark have won their last two meetings with France in all competitions, both in the 2022 Nations League, but Opta still make Les Bleus the favourites, with their model giving the world champions a 52.7 per cent chance of victory.

The possibility of a Denmark triumph is 22.8 per cent, while the draw stands at 24.5 per cent before kick-off.

Kai Havertz believes Ilkay Gundogan and Manuel Neuer's criticism of Germany's performance against Japan can spur them on in Sunday's do-or-die meeting with Spain.

Germany lost their opening World Cup game for just the third time (W13 D4) on Wednesday as Bundesliga duo Ritsu Doan and Takuma Asano came off the bench to fire Japan to a shock 2-1 win.

Captain Neuer lamented Germany's failure to put the game to bed after the defeat, while Gundogan said Asano's goal was one of the most straightforward ever scored at a World Cup.

The shock result leaves Germany facing consecutive World Cup group-stage exits ahead of their meeting with Spain – who are favourites to top Group E after thrashing Costa Rica 7-0.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Havertz insisted his team-mates' comments had not caused any ill feeling, saying: "It was constructive criticism from Ilkay and Manu. 

"I can understand the boys. We talked about it. Such criticism is also good for the team because we continue to develop. It was a small snippet from an interview. Nobody is angry there.

"I can understand that negativity comes up from a lot of fans. There's a lot of people taking shots at us, but in my head I'm not worried. 

"I don't care what was in the past. It's a big game on Sunday. There's no use getting negative thoughts now. We are looking ahead."

Another early elimination would continue a run of poor tournament displays from Die Mannschaft, who went out in the last 16 at Euro 2020 after failing to make the knockout stages in Russia four years ago, but Havertz expects them to improve next time out.

"The statistics don't speak for us, but we have experienced a lot of change in recent years, which is not easy," the Chelsea forward added.

"That is not an excuse. What we have shown is not enough. But we will do everything we can to improve that."

The omens are not good for Germany, who have won just one of their last seven meetings with Spain (D2 L4) – a run which includes a humiliating 6-0 loss in Seville two years ago.

Julian Brandt does not believe that result will have any bearing on Sunday's fixture, and he hopes Germany can draw on their Euro 2020 experience in a bid to keep their World Cup dream alive.

"We're in a s***** situation and Spain come into the stadium with a 7-0 win behind them, but this is an opportunity for us. This can release a lot of energy," Brandt said.

"A little over a year ago, we also lost to France in the first game and then we won in the second game against Portugal. The guys understand such a situation. I don't think the 6-0 is still relevant."

Marcel Desailly believes Rafael Leao must become "ruthless" and "forge his character" following comparisons between the Milan winger and Thierry Henry.

Leao, directly involved in 10 of the Rossoneri's 29 Serie A goals this season (scoring six and assisting four), opened his Portugal tally in their World Cup win over Ghana on Thursday.

Desailly won the Champions League and two Scudetti during his five-year stint at Milan between 1993 and 1998 - the same year he was a team-mate of Henry's in France's first World Cup triumph.

When asked if he thought Leao was similar to Henry, whose national record tally of 51 goals was equalled by Olivier Giroud in Les Bleus' victory over Australia on Tuesday, the former defender told La Gazzetta dello Sport: "Calm down.

"It seems to me that Leao became a star before he even became a star. He has enormous potential, but he doesn't give me the idea of being ruthless. I ask Leao to forge his character."

Meanwhile, Desailly praised another Milan player in compatriot Theo Hernandez, who appeared as a substitute in France's 4-1 triumph over the Socceroos and could remain at full-back for the remainder of the World Cup following injury to his brother Lucas.

"Theo Hernandez can become the strongest in the world," he added. "He is a chameleon, he has the ability to change his function within the team."

Having regained the Serie A crown last season, Stefano Pioli's side are eight points adrift of leaders Napoli after the opening 15 matches in the Italian top flight.

The Partenopei are unbeaten so far in their quest for a first Scudetto since the 1989-90 season, but Desailly does not believe they will maintain their momentum throughout the campaign.

"I love Napoli’s energy," he said. "But I doubt they can hold on psychologically until the end. They don't have the squad to hold up."

Lionel Scaloni will not alter his principles, insisting that is "non-negotiable", as he tries to plot a route past Mexico and keep Argentina's World Cup hopes alive.

The South American champions were stunned 2-1 by Saudi Arabia in their opening game, plunging their qualification for the knockout phase from Group C into unexpected doubt.

Another defeat at the hands of Mexico, coached by Argentinian Tata Martino, could prove fatal but Scaloni dismissed any notion of a change in playing style from his team.

He said: "We watched the game back [against Saudi Arabia] but now we are thinking about Mexico which will be entirely different.

"But the way we will play will be similar, we won't change our style due to what happened on Tuesday, that's clear. Mexico are an excellent team, an offensive team with a great coach. But we have a style that is non-negotiable.

"We might have taken a blow in the opening match but we need to stick to our guns and approach it in the same way.

"When you have a blow you have to bounce back and the squad is ready to do that. We know there is a full country behind us and the fans can take confidence that the team will break their backs until the very last seconds they are on the pitch so we can reverse this difficult situation."

Scaloni confirmed captain Lionel Messi has no issues ahead of the encounter at Lusail Stadium.

"He trained well and he's feeling well," he added. "More than ever we need everyone, and I am sure everything will play out. We have no issues with his physical level."

Inter striker Lautaro Martinez acknowledged Saturday's game is "like a final", but is confident the team can cope with the levels of expectation.

He said: "Tomorrow is a big match for us. It's like a final because we need to win. It will be a very important match for our future but we've proved that we have the players and the quality and for a game like this that will be key.

"There is no pressure because we rely on our work. We are confident, have trust in our technical staff and every player. We are keeping calm and confident and will do everything for our fans."

Martino, who also coached Argentina from August 2014 to July 2016, was asked how he feels about potentially robbing Messi of a final chance to win the World Cup, replying: "What would you do if you were in my place? I hope Mexico win, there's no other answer. I will do my utmost for a Mexico win."

Mexico played out a drab goalless draw with Poland in their opener and Martino was eager to stress there was plenty at stake for his team too.

"I don't think the needs [for the teams] are that different," he added. "The game is key for us as well, we only have one point. We will try to play with our own ideas but we are playing a powerful team. When we saw Argentina in our group, we did not see a situation like we have.

"After Argentina's defeat, this has become a key match, especially as we also didn't have a positive result. If we get a positive result here, we might be in a position to qualify for the next round."

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