Italy and Argentina on course for Qatar contention but concerns for France and Portugal?

By Sports Desk July 13, 2021

Italy and Argentina can prepare for the 2022 World Cup full of confidence after continental triumphs in the European Championship and Copa America.

The Azzurri have recovered in spectacular fashion from failing to qualify for Russia 2018, while Lionel Messi finally has an international honour to shout about.

Those teams were not alone in taking encouragement from this year's major international tournaments, but other potential Qatar contenders were not quite so impressive.

While some sides could reasonably point to mitigating factors – Belgium's injuries, Germany's final campaign under Joachim Low – plenty of big names underwhelmed.

With the World Cup finals, now just 16 months away, the next big target on the horizon, Stats Perform assesses which teams have put themselves in a better or worse position to challenge.

FULL OF HOPE...

Italy

Italy might have missed the previous World Cup after an awful qualifying campaign but, barring another such mishap, will enter the next tournament as defending European champions, and the Azzurri have in the past tended to perform better on the world stage than in the Euros, this their second continental championship to go alongside four global triumphs.

The only question mark against Roberto Mancini's side heading into Euro 2020 on a long unbeaten run was how they might fare against top teams, having largely avoided facing elite opposition since their most recent defeat to Portugal in September 2018. They then eliminated Belgium, Spain and England in succession to take the title and extend their stunning streak to 34 matches without a loss.

 

Only in the centre of defence, with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, are Italy really ageing, and even then a swift turnaround could see the pair go again, having trailed for only 109 minutes of their undefeated stretch – 65 of those coming in the final against England.

Argentina

Argentina had been without a major honour since 1993, losing four Copa America finals and one World Cup decider since then. Messi had been involved in four of those five disappointments, but his and his country's fortunes finally changed for the better against Brazil.

The world's finest free agent was the obvious difference-maker, even if he did not score or create a goal in the 2021 final. Messi's goal involvements across the campaign improved from two in 2019 to a leading nine. He also created more chances (3.0, up from 2.0) and attempted more shots (4.0, up from 3.1) per 90 minutes.

But Messi also benefited from Argentina's sturdier foundations. Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez – a debutant last month – was a breakout star, with the defence in front of him limiting chances as La Albiceleste conceded only three goals, half as many as in more matches in two years earlier.

England

Qatar 2022 will feel a long way away right now for England, who were so close yet so far from glory at Wembley. It ended in disappointment, but just making a first major tournament final in 55 years can only be counted as a success.

And the Three Lions have now proven they can now regularly contend; having reached the semi-finals at the previous World Cup, they have won knockout matches at consecutive tournaments (excluding third-place play-offs) for the first time. This might well be England's best ever team and they still have age on their side heading to Qatar.

Gareth Southgate's side should at least continue to be hard to beat. Since his first game in charge in 2016, England have kept 35 clean sheets – four clear of Italy with the best tally for a European nation.

 

Spain

Two games into Euro 2020, it seemed unlikely Spain would emerge from the tournament in a particularly positive light. They had dominated against Sweden – setting records for possession (85 per cent), passes (917) and successful passes (830) – and Poland, yet drawn both matches.

But the next two outings were rather more uplifting as La Roja scored five times against both Slovakia and Croatia to become the first team in Euros history to do so in consecutive matches. After scraping past Switzerland on penalties, Spain were the better side against Italy in the last four, only to come up just short – this time beaten on spot-kicks.

If Luis Enrique can unearth a reliable forward before next November, having underperformed their expected goals total by an alarming 4.1, Spain will very much be back in business.

DOWNWARD SLOPE...

Netherlands

At the end of the group stage, the Netherlands looked to be on a comparable course to Italy. They had also missed out on the 2018 World Cup – and Euro 2016 – but then reached the final of the inaugural Nations League in 2019 and won their first three matches at Euro 2020.

Led by Memphis Depay, those victories had also extended a run of scoring at least twice to 10 consecutive games in an Oranje record. Only then, though, did their campaign fall apart.

 

Matthijs de Ligt's red card against the Czech Republic in the last 16 led to a shock 2-0 defeat and cost Frank de Boer his job. Rebuilding again, the Netherlands – who were missing Virgil van Dijk due to the injury he sustained in October 2020 – have work to do just to get to Qatar, one of three teams on six points in Group G in qualifying, behind Turkey.

France

France were the favourites for Euro 2020 and may well be the popular pick again next year, but their shock shoot-out exit to Switzerland raised plenty of questions.

Supposed to shine alongside the returning Karim Benzema, superstar forward Kylian Mbappe disappointed for the first time on the big stage, a solitary assist his only goal involvement. Yet even when the big names did combine to devastating effect, as Benzema scored twice within four minutes and three seconds of a Hugo Lloris penalty save against Switzerland, dismal defending cost Les Bleus.

France gave away a tournament-high three spot-kicks, not helped by Didier Deschamps' unsuccessful attempt to switch to a new 3-4-1-2 formation – one that will surely be left in the drawer for the World Cup.

Portugal

Will Cristiano Ronaldo consider this a successful tournament? Portugal lost their crown, but he took home the Golden Boot with five goals and an assist. The Juventus forward's contributions kept Fernando Santos' side in contention as far as the round of 16, although – as at times at club level – there was a suspicion this team might better be able to thrive without their talisman.

 

No other Portugal player tallied more than two goal involvements, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva each drawing blanks. Indeed, that highly talented quartet only attempted 10 shots – five fewer than Ronaldo alone – and created 13 chances between them.

In Qatar, Ronaldo may be less mobile but will surely remain front and centre, reluctant to step aside for Fernandes and Co as he takes one final shot at World Cup glory.

Brazil

Had a tense home final gone their way, Brazil would have again been big winners coming out of the Copa America. But Argentina's progress and decisive victory has seen the Selecao – for so long on top in South America – knocked off their perch.

After five consecutive successes, it was Brazil's first major tournament final defeat since the 1998 World Cup, while they had not been beaten in a knockout match at the Copa America (excluding penalties) since 2001 against Honduras. However, they did become world champions for a fifth time the following year.

That will be the hope as Tite's men regroup, having lost their scoring touch when it mattered most. Brazil netted only twice in three knockout games.

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    Ronaldo returned to United at the end of August 2021, but after a season back at Old Trafford, the 37-year-old apparently wants out.

    According to multiple reports, Ronaldo has informed the club that he wishes to leave should an acceptable offer be received.

    Ronaldo was United's top scorer last season, though it would be fair to say his comeback did not go entirely to plan, with the Red Devils finishing sixth and recording their worst Premier League points tally.

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    Ronaldo's want-away wish bad news for United - Patric Ridge

    Sure, United's season might not have gone according to plan, but without Ronaldo, it could have been a lot worse. United ultimately scraped into the Europa League despite a dismal end to the campaign, and the fact that they have continental club football of any description to look forward to in the coming season is, in large part, down to the 18 league goals Ronaldo scored.

    His record speaks for itself, and the task of replacing him is put into even more of a stark light when you compare Ronaldo's statistics to the rest of United's squad last term.

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    In this writer's opinion, Ronaldo leaving would leave Ten Hag with even more work to do, on top of what is already a hugely difficult task.

    Ronaldo departure would provide opportunity for reset - Ryan Benson

    Goals win football matches. Cristiano Ronaldo scores goals – we know this. But did he make United a better team in general? Few would claim he did.

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    Even before he returned to Old Trafford, there were plenty of critics warning fans United could potentially be worse off than before with Ronaldo because of how little he offers to the wider team.

    Yes, he scores goals, but what's stopping United signing a replacement who does that but also works hard off the ball and adds dynamism to the attack? Maybe that's easier said than done, but those players do literally exist.

    United are in a transitional stage, the middle of a rebuild. With that in mind, no one will be expecting them to mount anything close to a title challenge next season, Ronaldo or not.

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    Cristiano Ronaldo is poised to become the biggest news of the transfer window, with reports stating he is keen on leaving Manchester United to continue playing in the Champions League.

    The Portuguese superstar has played in Europe's elite competition for 19 consecutive seasons since first moving to United from Sporting CP in 2003 and stands as the highest-ever scorer in the tournament with 140 goals.

    However, United's sixth-placed finish in the Premier League last season means that Erik ten Hag takes over a side who are set for Europa League football – and it is now reported that Ronaldo is pushing for an exit.

    If he does get his wish, there are only a few likely destinations for the 37-year-old and Stats Perform has assessed some of them.

    Napoli

    A return to Serie A has been touted for Ronaldo, with The Athletic naming Napoli as potential suitors – they have a void in their team following the exit of Lorenzo Insigne.

    In Ronaldo's three years in Italy with Juventus, no player scored more Serie A goals than his tally of 81 and, despite spending the past year with Manchester United, only Ciro Immobile has scored more Serie A goals since 2018.

    Napoli, having finished third in Serie A last year and nine points ahead of Juventus, would match Ronaldo's desire to play Champions League football – although the club's finances and Ronaldo's wage demands may prove to be restrictive.

     

    Chelsea

    Fresh from Todd Boehly's takeover, Chelsea are looking to rejuvenate the squad and finances do not appear to be a problem, given they have allowed Romelu Lukaku to return to Inter on loan just a year after spending a club-record £97.5million on the Belgium forward.

    Interestingly enough, it has been reported that Ronaldo's agent, Jorge Mendes, has already met with the new Chelsea owner this summer and the Blues are in need of a striker having lost Lukaku, with Timo Werner performing better from a deeper role.

    Whether Ronaldo would accept a move to a Premier League rival, given his status at Old Trafford, is the biggest question regarding any hopes the Blues may have in signing the veteran forward and, if he is keen, United would likely demand a significant return on the investment they paid last year.

    Chelsea also have interest in Raheem Sterling and Leeds United attacker Raphinha, but Ronaldo would be a statement of intent for the new owner.

    Sporting CP

    With a United homecoming already under his belt, could Sporting secure a sensational return of their own and bring Ronaldo back to where it all began? It's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.

    Second in Primeira Liga last season, Sporting have the Champions League football that Ronaldo craves and he is already a great at the club – though his success has come in his years since he left his home country in 2003.

    Ronaldo had just a single season in the senior squad with Sporting before he moved to United, so he may feel he has unfinished business – and it is a side that can definitely compete, having ended a 20-year barren spell without a league title in the 2020-21 season.

     

    Bayern Munich

    Ronaldo has shone in three of Europe's top-five leagues, the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, with only the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 left standing – and Bayern have been touted as potential suitors, though Paris Saint-Germain are not said to be interest (sorry, no link up with Lionel Messi just yet, sports fans).

    With Robert Lewandowski's future at the Allianz Arena continuing to be shrouded in speculation, it may fall into place for the Poland international to get what he wants, a move to Barcelona, and for Bayern to land Ronaldo as his replacement.

    In the past five years, no player has scored more league goals than Lewandowski (193) but Ronaldo, along with the addition of Sadio Mane, should be able to fill any goalscoring void that would be left in the event of a departure.

    Real Madrid

    Another possible return destination... could Ronaldo wind back up in the Spanish capital?

    The Champions League winners are hardly in need of another superstar forward, given the incredible form of Karim Benzema, but bringing Ronaldo back to the club where he scored 450 goals would surely appeal to president Florentino Perez? 

    Madrid missed out on Kylian Mbappe, much to their frustration, and having Ronaldo in their side would plug a gap, so to speak, until the PSG forward is further into the new, three-year contract he signed with the French club in May.

    MLS

    Champions League football has been documented as the reason for Ronaldo's desire to leave but, if such offers are not forthcoming, could a move to MLS be on the cards? 

    Financial rules and designated player spots would make a switch complicated, with there only being a handful of teams likely to be able to make a move possible – likely to be those in Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

    With the 2026 World Cup taking place in North America, bringing Ronaldo to MLS would raise the profile of the league further – and would undoubtedly be the biggest acquisition for the league since David Beckham's move to LA Galaxy in 2007.

    That move marked the start of a new era of soccer in the US and has evolved considerably since, though Ronaldo's arrival would send things to a completely new level.

    It has been reported that United do not wish to sell Ronaldo, but with his contract being up next year, could a switch to North America be likely? 

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