Raphinha declared it would be difficult to top the euphoria he felt after scoring twice in Brazil's 4-1 win over Uruguay in World Cup qualifying.

The Leeds United forward made his first start for the Selecao one to remember, netting the second and third goals of a clinical victory.

Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa also got on the scoresheet in Manaus, with Uruguay's reply coming from Luis Suarez.

Raphinha said: "Tonight will be hard to beat, it will be difficult to forget tonight, it never had to end.

"I'll go back and be focused on what made me get here, the good work in Leeds, I'll do my job well to come back other times.

"I don't think there's any way to explain the happiness I'm feeling, this match with the goals and the victory couldn't have been more striking for me."

Quoted in Globo, Raphinha added: "I'm making my childhood dream come true, not only to wear the national team's shirt, but also to represent the national team. Being able to help with goals is very gratifying."

 

Raphinha has a close family association to Brazil great Ronaldinho and was asked what he thought the former Barcelona and Milan star would have made of his impressive display.

"[He would] just congratulate me for the match, not only him but other people," said Raphinha. "The most important thing is that I'm managing to represent the community I came from, my family and friends.

"I'm from Restinga, from Porto Alegre. It is where [former Brazil international] Tinga came from and where there is a lot of lost talent, thank God I'm managing to represent the community."

Raphinha became the first Leeds United player to score for Brazil, and the 24-year-old admitted it helped to have Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar as a team-mate, to guide him through such a game.

"Playing with Ney is very easy. I'm a big fan," Raphinha said. "I'm very inspired by him, in his way of playing, in his way of attacking his opponent. I watch many videos of him. To be playing with him is a dream come true."

Brazil returned to winning ways and continued on their path to Qatar 2022 as Neymar and Raphinha dazzled in a 4-1 World Cup qualifying win over Uruguay on Thursday.

The Selecao, whose perfect qualifying record ended with Sunday's 0-0 draw in Colombia, raced to a two-goal lead within 18 minutes against a ragged Uruguay side via strikes from Neymar and Raphinha, making his first international start.

Raphinha doubled his account in the 58th minute as Brazil dominated La Celeste, with Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera prevented the score from being uglier in Manaus.

Luis Suarez's 77th minute free-kick meant Brazil, who had gone six qualifiers without conceding a goal and nine in home World Cup qualifying games, have conceded twice in their past three before Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa's rounded out the scoring four minutes from time.

Neymar netted in the 10th minute, chesting down Fred's lofted ball into the box, the superstar forward getting around Muslera and drilling home from a sharp angle past Sebastian Coates on the line.

Raphinha doubled Brazil's advantage, firing in after Neymar's shot deflected off Diego Godin and Muslera into his path to become the first Leeds United player to score for the South American giants.

Brazil should have had a third in the 34th minute when Neymar and Raphinha both took a touch too many inside the box, failing to shoot.

Muslera kept Uruguay in the game after the interval, denying Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus twice in quick succession, along with Raphinha.

Edinson Cavani, who started alongside Uruguay's all-time leading scorer Suarez, had a goal disallowed for a clear offside in the 56th minute before Brazil added a third.

Raphinha grabbed his second, capping off a swift counter-attack by firing in off the post from Neymar's release approaching the hour.

Muslera saved well to thwart substitute Barbosa twice, before Suarez rifled in a free-kick into the bottom corner for a consolation goal – his 65th international strike.

Barbosa got his goal after VAR consultation, heading in from Neymar's cross to make it two goals in his last three international appearances.

Neymar claimed the injury he suffered in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup was one of the worst moments of his career.

During the making of an exclusive new documentary entitled 'Neymar and The Line of Kings', the 29-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star has seemed to suggest his playing days are winding down.

"I think it's my last World Cup," Neymar told DAZN when asked about next year's showpiece in Qatar. He will turn 31 seven weeks after the final of the tournament, scheduled for December 18, 2022.

PSG head coach Mauricio Pochettino, Brazil boss Tite and compatriot Thiago Silva have been among those offering their support to Neymar, who claims he is unsure whether he has the "strength of mind to deal with football" much longer.

And, in another excerpt from the documentary, Neymar revealed one of the toughest incidents he has gone through to date, and just how close he was to suffer an injury with serious consequences.

Neymar, aged 22, was Brazil's poster boy heading into the 2014 World Cup on home soil. Only a year on from his move from Santos to Barcelona, the forward was the nation's great hope as it hosted FIFA's flagship tournament.

He scored four goals – including a double in the opening game against Croatia – as Brazil finished top of Group A.

 

However, Neymar's tournament was ended in the quarter-finals, when Colombia's Camilo Zuniga barged into his back, fracturing a vertebra.

"It was one of the worst moments of my career. It destroyed my dream to keep playing in the World Cup," reflects Neymar in the documentary.

"When I felt that pain in my back, I remember that Marcelo wanted to help me up, but I was really in pain.

"I then tried to move my legs, but I wasn't able to. I didn't have the strength to get up. I told them: 'I can't, I can't, I can't feel anything'.

"The doctor told me, 'I have good news and bad news'. I asked him to tell me the bad news first. He said, 'your World Cup is over'.

"I started sobbing, and asked him, 'and the good news?' – he said: 'you were two centimetres away from not being able to walk anymore'."

Brazil held on to progress to the semi-finals, yet without Neymar, capitulated 7-1 to Germany in one of the most humiliating results in World Cup history.

Neymar, fortunately, recovered, going on to help Barca win a treble in 2014-15, before becoming the world's most expensive player when he joined PSG in 2017.

He also helped Brazil win Olympic gold in Rio in 2016, a crown that was retained at Tokyo 2020.

Gareth Southgate refused to assess the individual performances of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling or rush to judgement on Phil Foden's role in the England team after their draw with Hungary.

The Three Lions were held 1-1 at Wembley on Tuesday, ending a run of 21 consecutive home qualifying wins.

They had to come from behind, too, with Roland Sallai dispatching a penalty after Luke Shaw was penalised for a high boot, before John Stones nodded a leveller.

Southgate sought to change the game – avoiding a repeat of the Poland game, where he made no substitutions in an England match for the first time since Euro 96 – but Jack Grealish was an odd choice for the first withdrawal.

Grealish had caused Hungary problems, unlike Kane and Sterling, who both followed.

Although Sterling had two of England's biggest chances, he could not beat Peter Gulacsi, while Kane's run of goals in 15 consecutive qualifiers came to an end without the struggling Tottenham superstar netting.

Southgate was asked if poor club form, with Sterling out of the first team at Manchester City, had contributed to below-par showings from two of England's most consistent performers.

But he told ITV: "I don't think we should look at individuals, because collectively we didn't perform at the level we needed to.

"When you have that sort of situation, it's difficult for individuals as well."

Southgate took a similar tact when asked about the make-up of his midfield, where Foden again played a central role – as in Andorra on Saturday – but this time joined Mason Mount alongside Declan Rice.

Mount represents a similarly adventurous option, and Southgate had recognised a need to look at "the balance of the team" after Hungary posed England "a tactical problem".

"We've got to go away and reflect," the manager said. "We shouldn't just judge things on one game in terms of that experiment, if you like, because I think right across the board, from the start, we weren't sharp with our play, gave the ball away, we were overrunning things.

"I just think we were underneath it. It's the first time in a long time, but we've got to hold our hands up to that."

Despite the difficult outing, which was further marred by clashes between police and the Hungary fans, one of whom was arrested for a "racially aggravated public order offence", England remain in control of Group I.

And discounting penalty shoot-outs, Southgate's side are now unbeaten in 18 – their longest such sequence since a run of 19 that included their 1966 World Cup win.

England could only draw 1-1 at home to Hungary on Tuesday as another encounter between the sides was marred by crowd trouble.

The Three Lions won the reverse fixture 4-0 last month in this World Cup qualifying campaign but had to endure racist abuse that saw Hungary ordered to play a future match behind closed doors.

At Wembley, the Metropolitan Police told of a "racially aggravated public order offence" by an individual in the away end "following comments made towards a steward". Attempts to arrest the individual led to scuffles between the police and visiting supporters.

On the pitch, meanwhile, England had to come from behind to claim a point that nudges them a little nearer to qualification, with John Stones' strike eight minutes before the break cancelling out a Roland Sallai penalty.

Gareth Southgate's men were in control without truly threatening for the 22 minutes before the spot-kick was awarded against Luke Shaw for a high boot on Loic Nego just inside the area.

After a delay, during which home players protested the left-back's innocence, Sallai sent Jordan Pickford the wrong way.

However, a succession of fouls around the Hungary box built pressure on their goal, and Phil Foden's right-wing free-kick earned a touch on its way through to the far post and Stones, who had a simple finish.

Raheem Sterling's header on the stroke of half-time was parried by Peter Gulacsi, but the England forward prodded a tame rebound wide, before Stones nodded a Foden corner off target following the restart.

Southgate sought to change the game with a series of substitutions – including the withdrawal of Harry Kane – but their best second-half chance came and went when the captain found Sterling, who could not squeeze a finish under Gulacsi.

Hansi Flick hailed Germany's attitude and their perfect start to his tenure after they confirmed their 2022 World Cup spot with a 4-0 win over North Macedonia on Monday.

Kai Havertz broke the deadlock at the Tose Proeski Arena and Chelsea colleague Timo Werner netted a quickfire brace, with Jamal Musiala adding the fourth goal to become his country's second-youngest scorer in history (18y 227d).

Flick subsequently becomes just the second Germany head coach – along with predecessor Joachim Low – to win all of his opening five games, while Die Mannschaft have now qualified for every World Cup since 1954, with only Brazil achieving the same feat.

And the former Bayern Munich head coach, whose side have scored 18 and conceded just one since his appointment, was delighted with their performance in Skopje.

"We now have five wins from five this season," Flick told RTL post-match. "The result was perfect.

"We wanted to qualify as quickly as possible. You have to compliment the team on their attitude.

"Of course the first half was a bit wild, but we can be happy that we won and qualified. We were very consistent after the first goal, so we can be satisfied."

Werner attempted a game-high nine shots – two more than the entire North Macedonia team combined – and Flick also found time to praise the striker as he looks ahead to Qatar in 2022.

"We now have time to develop and improve until November 2022," he continued. "I'm looking forward to the task. Timo Werner's second goal was the best today.

"He didn't have it easy. He had a few chances in the game and scored two great goals."

The Chelsea forward, who has scored 21 times for his country, added that his relationship with Flick is vital for his performances.

"If the coach counts on you, it helps every player," Werner said. "I need this trust from outside. He gives me 100 per cent. I'll try to pay that back."

Memphis Depay scored twice and had a penalty saved as the Netherlands maintained their hold on World Cup qualifying Group G with a comfortable 6-0 win over Gibraltar.

Virgil van Dijk's early header got the ball rolling, with Depay responding to Bradley Banda saving his spot-kick by finishing off a neat team move and scoring a second penalty as the Oranje went in at half-time with a commanding lead.

Denzel Dumfries wasted no time in adding to the scoreline in the second half, before substitutes Arnaut Danjuma and Donny Malen completed the scoring to condemn Gibraltar to an eighth defeat from eight.

The Netherlands can ill afford to slip up, with Norway two points behind them, but that was never likely here as Van Dijk opened the scoring inside nine minutes, losing his marker with ease and nodding Depay's corner in at the near post.

Stefan de Vrij's header was blocked in the box by the arm of Graeme Torrilla, with a penalty awarded following a VAR review, yet Depay's spot-kick was at a nice height for Banda to make a convincing save.

The Gibraltar goalkeeper could do little two minutes later, however, as Noa Lang's superb pass carved the visiting defence open and Davy Klaassen squared for Depay to tap in.

Banda made fine saves from Georginio Wijnaldum and De Vrij, but another handball – this time Julian Valarino blocking Steven Berghuis' right-wing cross – gave Depay a second opportunity from the spot he would not pass up.

Dumfries made it 4-0 shortly after the restart, finding himself in the centre of the box to head in Lang's left-wing cross, and a lull in the scoring was brought to an end 15 minutes from time when Wout Weghorst flicked on to Danjuma, who steered the ball into the bottom-left corner on the stretch.

Weghorst thought he had got his name on the scoresheet when he nodded over Banda but Roy Chipolina hacked off the line, with the sixth instead belonging to Malen after slick interplay involving Depay.

England manager Gareth Southgate is unconvinced by the idea of having the World Cup every two years, questioning the feasibility of continuously adding to the football calendar.

The idea of a biennial World Cup had been floated in the past, but in recent months it seems to have become a much more likely next step for the competition.

Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger publicly backed the idea back in July and, as FIFA's head of global football development, the Frenchman has argued a revamp of the international football calendar is both "what the fans want" and a necessity for the improvement of player wellbeing.

FIFA has been carrying out a feasibility study on the prospect of a World Cup every two years and last month held an online summit to discuss plans.

But FIFA's Wenger-backed proposals have been met with antipathy from many key stakeholders, such as confederations, officials, leagues, players and clubs.

UEFA has been particularly scathing in its response to the idea, with president Aleksander Ceferin openly in opposition and vice-president Zbigniew Boniek rather callously questioning the mental sanity of such a proposal.

Southgate was less forthright but still expressed a hint of disagreement.

"I don't know how far things have progressed. There seemed to be a lot of things not in the original proposal I was shown; it is hard to keep track," he told reporters on Monday ahead of England's World Cup qualifier against Hungary.

"We all want high-level games; the Nations League showed the quality and that is exactly what we want to be involved in, but you can't just keep adding to the calendar."

England midfielder Mason Mount was in attendance with Southgate and agreed with the idea that players should be consulted when such proposals are being drawn up, though he seemed to be open to playing a major tournament every year.

"I'd love that, but after the Euros and everything we went through, it [recovering mentally] probably did take longer than anything else," he said.

"You reflect on how it went – it was obviously such a big heartbreak to go all the way then fall at the last hurdle was difficult."

On player consultation, he added: "To have the players' input would be positive, I think.

"We want to play in as many top tournaments and games as possible, we want to be involved. To speak to us would be positive and help shape the future."

Brazil's 100 per cent record in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was finally ended on Sunday as they were held to an underwhelming 0-0 draw away to Colombia.

Tite's men had won all of their first nine matches in the qualification group before coming unstuck in what was a bruising, albeit disappointing, contest in Barranquilla.

Both sides created chances during an even first half, but the finishing was of a low standard as the score remained goalless at the interval.

Even fewer clear-cut opportunities were created after the break

Yerry Mina wasted a glorious chance to give Colombia an early lead when heading just off target, though they had a lucky escape of their own soon after when Lucas Paqueta prodded agonisingly wide from Neymar's throughball.

Brazil's captain played a key role again just after the half-hour mark as he teed up Fred on the edge of the box, but the Manchester United midfielder's subsequent shot was dreadful.

The match became especially scrappy in the second half, with neither goalkeeper called into meaningful action again until the 68th minute when Allison had to push Juan Quintero's 30-yard effort away.

That attempt came as the hosts looked to up the ante in the final half-hour, but some substitutions provided a response from Brazil, with Raphinha and Paqueta both wasting reasonable chances.

Raphinha threatened again five minutes from time as his wonderful cross picked out fellow substitute Antony, and David Ospina produced a decisive save to deny the Ajax talent the winning goal.


What does it mean? Selecao still in control

Thankfully for Tite and Brazil, their excellent form in qualification prior to Sunday has bought them plenty of room for error – even if Argentina win their game in hand, the Selecao will still be six points clear at the top.

Tite might be a little concerned by the creative lull his team experienced for the middle third of the match, though the options he brought on from the bench were proof of that not being a squad-wide issue as Brazil finished the game well.
 
Raphinha sparkles off the bench

After being brought on for the anonymous Gabriel Barbosa just after the hour, Leeds United winger Raphinha was a real nuisance. He completed two of his three dribbles, picked out a wonderful cross for Antony and had more touches in the opposition's box than every other player, highlighting the positivity he brought. Tite might be wise to start him next time.
 
Quintero unable to brew anything special for Los Cafeteros

With James Rodriguez absent, Quintero was the creator Colombia looked to. While he was not exactly quiet, given his six shots was the most of anyone on the pitch, they were all hopeful – and unsuccessful – efforts from distance. That may have been less frustrating if he had been a creative influence as well, but he did not play a single key pass.
 
What's next?

Both teams still have one more match left of this international window. Brazil host Uruguay on Thursday, while Colombia are at home to Ecuador.

Gareth Southgate was not surprised by Phil Foden's outstanding England display against Andorra, while he backed Jadon Sancho to recover his best form at Manchester United.

Foden came into the international break having dazzled on the left wing for Manchester City in last week's 2-2 draw with Liverpool, scoring one goal and having a hand in the other.

The 21-year-old was not on the scoresheet in Saturday's 5-0 World Cup qualifying win, but he controlled the game from the centre of midfield.

Having played the pass that cut Andorra open for Ben Chilwell's opener, Foden got an assist for Bukayo Saka's second. The last England duo aged 21 or under to combine for a World Cup qualifying goal had been Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen against Germany in 2001.

Tammy Abraham, James Ward-Prowse and Jack Grealish added goals after half-time, but Foden remained the star.

Although there was one wild, wayward shot, he created three chances and completed 94.7 per cent of his 76 passes, including 93.1 per cent of 58 in the Andorra half.

England have been accused of lacking control in the centre of the pitch in their biggest games, so manager Southgate was intrigued by Foden's display – even if he expected the City man would thrive.

"The quality we know," Southgate told a news conference. "For us, it's really interesting the possibilities with him in terms of his positioning moving forward.

"Today was a perfect game, because the whole team had no need for defending, so you're only analysing one part of the game against a certain level of opponent.

"Nevertheless, to see the passes and to have the quality to hit the passes he did is apparent for everybody.

"Not just him, but as one or two others in that midfield get stronger, I think it's exciting to see how we might evolve as a team in certain matches and how that balance and creativity might continue to progress.

"I'm not surprised that his performance was the standout tonight. We half-expected it when we named the team, really.

"I think [identifying his best position] is difficult, because frankly he's one of those players that is effective across that front line, if you play him seven, 11, 10, eight.

"A traditional 4-3-3 formation, with a six, eight, 10, [he would be] the 10 within that but with the capability to drop lower and to build the play at times as he did tonight.

"I think part of that is as he gets stronger, and part of that is the balance of the type of player who might play as the other eight, as well, and their qualities.

"Look, it's fabulously exciting, isn't it, when you're trying to break down a defence as you are tonight and you've got a player who can see the passes that he sees and hit them and execute them in the way that he did.

"Towards the end of the game, there were some lovely bits of combination – Foden, Mount, Grealish, Saka – the type of play that our players are capable of producing is really exciting."

While Foden has two goals and two assists in six club games this term on one side of Manchester, new United signing Sancho has yet to register one of either in nine outings.

He got two assists on Saturday, though, including teeing up Chilwell after Foden's pass.

Southgate said: "It was not easy for a winger in the game tonight, because quite often you're receiving the ball with two, sometimes three defenders really close.

"You've got to pick the right moments to set the ball off and the right moments to back yourself to maybe take one or two of those players out. I thought he did that exceptionally well.

"It was important that he got the assist, because you've also got to have that productivity, and the right pass or the right cross at the end of those packages of play.

"When I've spoken to him this week, we shouldn't be surprised that for a young player to have such a big change in his life – new league, new club, different style of play, different training regime, back living in Manchester, moving house, everything that's involved in that – that's a lot to take in.

"It's going to need time, but he showed a lot of the qualities he has, and I know that will come with the club as well."

Belgium's Nations League hopes fell flat on Thursday, but Yannick Carrasco insists the squad still have faith they can achieve glory at the 2022 World Cup.

The world's number one ranked team squandered a two-goal lead as France came back to win 3-2 in their semi-final clash in Turin, Theo Hernandez scoring the crucial fifth goal of a thrilling contest in the 90th minute.

Instead of heading to San Siro to face Spain in the final, Belgium are instead back at the Allianz Stadium on Sunday, going up against European champions Italy in a third-place play-off.

It is the second such match during Roberto Martinez's tenure, the Barcelona-linked coach having previously guided Belgium to the semi-finals of World Cup 2018, where they also fell foul of France.

Belgium defeated England to claim third place in Russia, before reaching the quarter-finals at Euro 2020. Sunday's opponents Italy beat them there.

When asked if Belgium's squad still held belief in their ability to challenge at next year's World Cup in Qatar, Atletico Madrid winger Carrasco turned the tables on the media.

"Do we believe that we can win a prize in Qatar? We always believe in ourselves," he told a news conference.

"But do you still believe in us? Because we don't have that feeling. We know that we have a good team, that we can do something beautiful.

"On Friday, the coach showed what we did well and what we did badly.

"That is necessary to prepare for Qatar. A year is not long with the national team, we will use the match against France to get better."

 

Martinez, meanwhile, said a new cycle had now started for Belgium as they look to build towards the World Cup, which arguably presents the final chance for the Red Devils' 'golden generation' to claim a trophy.

He said: "A new cycle has started, that of preparing for the World Cup.

"Over the past five years we have created a style of play. Multiple players can bring what the team needs but our style of play goes beyond individuals. 

"We have been number one in the world for three years. Of course that is important. We want to remain number one. But our main motivation is to get better. The second half against France showed we are not the finished product."

Belgium will be out for revenge against the Azzurri, aiming to at least end their Nations League campaign on a high. However, they will be without Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who have both been withdrawn due to what Martinez described as "muscle overload".

"I cannot say," Martinez said when asked if the duo would be fit for their clubs next week. "That is a question for the medical department. But it is definitely about overload and not injury."

Jesse Lingard knows he needs regular club football as the Manchester United man bids to nail down a place in the England squad.

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has used Lingard sparingly this season, despite his remarkable performances on loan at West Ham last term.

Lingard declined to speak about the prospect of a new contract at Old Trafford, with his present deal due to expire at the end of this season.

But the attacking midfielder, whose 30th birthday will fall during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, is aware his England prospects could suffer if he is not playing regularly for his club.

After narrowly missing out on a place in the Euro 2020 squad, Lingard does not want to see another major tournament pass him by.

United are stocked with attacking talent and that is holding back Lingard's prospects of being a fixture in Solskjaer's starting XI.

"The World Cup's a long way away but obviously you need regular football," Lingard said in an England news conference.

"I was so close to going to the Euros. It's a big factor; if you're playing over 20-25 games, you're knocking on the door.

"So I think it does play a big part. At the moment I'm not doing any harm and if I keep performing well and doing well you never know what might happen.

"I'll keep confident in myself and when I get time on the pitch I'll carry on doing what I'm doing."

He has made only one start for Solskjaer in 2021-22, featuring from the first minute against West Ham in an EFL Cup third-round defeat.

That is the only game where he has played for longer than 24 minutes, but Lingard has strong evidence to call on when pointing to the overall level of his performances.

In 136 minutes of United action this season, spread across six games, he has scored twice and created three chances for others, one of which resulted in a goal.

He is outperforming his expected goals (xG) score of 0.59, which reflects the quality of chances, yet he is struggling to get ahead of the likes of Anthony Martial, whose data is not as impressive at this early stage of the campaign (three starts, 245 minutes, one goal, no assists, no chances created).

Lingard could face Andorra on Saturday, having scored twice against the minnows at Wembley last month, and for now at least he is firmly in favour with England boss Gareth Southgate.

Jadon Sancho may also feature against Andorra despite Southgate last week admitting the winger only scraped into the squad.

Sancho has played 436 minutes for United since arriving from Borussia Dortmund, and he has yet to score or assist on a goal, making a slow start at Old Trafford.

Lingard is convinced the 21-year-old will come good and show the form that made him a superstar of the Bundesliga and sealed a place in Southgate's Euro 2020 squad.

"We all know Jadon is a world-class player, and he's one of the best young talents in the world at the moment," Lingard said.

"At a big club like United there is always going to be pressure. I feel like he's slowly adapting now. And you can see glimpses of that in the previous games that he's played, and now we can see that in training week in week out.

"There's no doubt that he will succeed at United, I've got full confidence in that."

After 15 years without success on the international stage, Italy could win a second title in three months this week as the 2021 Nations League concludes.

That may come as a surprise to some – after all, given how recent Euro 2020 was and the fact the Nations League Finals are taking place amid a busy World Cup qualification period, it wouldn't be unsurprising if most people had completely forgotten about UEFA's secondary competition.

But here we are, it's Finals week and hosts Italy have themselves a wonderful opportunity to clinch another trophy, with Portugal winning the inaugural competition – also in front of home crowds – two years ago.

France and Belgium will contest the second semi-final, with Italy going up against Spain first on Wednesday in a repeat of their Euro 2020 last-four clash, which Roberto Mancini's men won on penalties.

Italy head into the tournament amid a world-record 37-match unbeaten run, last month's draw with Switzerland and the subsequent 5-0 win over Lithuania taking them clear of Brazil and La Roja.

Of course, the Spain team that had previously equalled Brazil's world record back in 2009 were in the throes of their most successful period ever, and Italy will hope that's a sign of things to come for them.

 

Spain's semi-final hurdle

That legendary Spain side saw their 35-match unbeaten streak – a run that included Euro 2008 success – ended in 2009 by the United States.

While the Confederations Cup was never really seen as a hugely important title, hence FIFA pulling the plug on it in 2019, the USA's 2-0 win in the semi-finals 12 years ago was a fairly big deal.

Jozy Altidore's opener was the first goal Spain had conceded in 451 minutes of play and only their third concession in 17 matches, and it was added to by Clint Dempsey.

On the 10th anniversary, Spanish publication AS referred to it as "one of the biggest upsets in football history". A little hyperbolic? Sure, but it certainly was a shock.

For starters, it remains Spain's sole defeat in five meetings with the USA, while it's still their only loss to a CONCACAF nation in 23 matches.

But perhaps the key fact from Spain's perspective was coach Vicente del Bosque's assertion of it only being a "little step backward" stood the test of time – a little over a year later, Spain were World champions for the first time and then they followed that up with Euro 2012 success.

 

That made them the first team since the foundation of the World Cup in 1930 to win three successive major international titles.

It was an iconic side that was routinely filled with players who'll always be remembered as all-time greats for La Roja.

The foundation of their ascension to greatness lay in that unbeaten run, and Italy will a similar status awaits them, regardless of how long they stay undefeated for.

Star quality

Many took for granted just how many remarkable players that Spain squad contained – it's unlikely they'll ever produce the same collective greatness in such a small period.

Xavi was the metronome and, as such, a key component. He played in all but two of the 35 matches in that unbeaten run, with Sergio Ramos (31), David Villa and Iker Casillas (both 29) next on the list.

But when it came to goalscoring, one man above all was the crucial cog: Villa.

A lethal striker for Valencia, Barcelona and – to a slightly lesser extent – Atletico Madrid at the peak of his powers, Villa scored 23 goals during La Roja's famous run, almost three times as many as anyone else. Fernando Torres was next with eight.

 

Luis Enrique's current team could do with a player of Villa's skillset, given the dearth of quality available to him in that position. After all, his squad for this week has no recognised centre-forward in it, with Ferran Torres arguably the closest to fitting the bill.

Cesc Fabregas was the man supplying the best service for Spain's goals in that period, with his 12 assists the most impressive return, while Xavi and Andres Iniesta had seven apiece.

Spain's incredible run compromised of 32 wins and just three draws, while they scored 73 times and conceded only 11.

A team, no superstars

Of course, Italy's world-record effort has already proven successful, with the 37-match run including their Euro 2020 triumph.

And in certain ways, it has actually been more fruitful than Spain's, with the Azzurri scoring 93 goals and letting in just 12, though nine of those matches were drawn.

While Spain spent 174 minutes trailing, Italy have had even less time behind in matches, just 109 minutes, and 65 of those were in one match – the Euro 2020 final against England.

Italy have been much less reliant on a single goalscoring outlet as well, which is perhaps explained by the theory they are less a collection of superstars but instead a tremendous team unit.

Ciro Immobile is their top scorer over the past 37 matches, his haul of eight insignificant compared to Villa's 23, whereas Lorenzo Insigne has been their most reliable source of creativity with seven assists.

But 10 players have scored at least four times for Italy, compared to only five in that Spain team.

Roberto Mancini's comfort with rotating and being able to adapt to different groups of players has really shone through.

 

While the Spain side of Luis Aragones and then Del Bosque had 11 players feature 24 or more times, only five Italians have played that often in Mancini's run, while the most he has used any single starting XI is twice – Spain's most-used line-up was put out four times.

But the important thing most people remember when looking back at that Spain squad is not any specific unbeaten run in itself, but the wider context and history that streak was a part of.

Similarly with Italy, the vast majority of people in 10 or 15 years arguably won't give much thought to their world-record unbeaten run because winning Euro 2020 is a bigger deal.

But Mancini and Italy will surely be hoping that was just the start of a period of domination, one that Spain's unbeaten streak seemingly foretold.

 

While Nations League success isn't going to elevate them to iconic status, it does provide another opportunity to continue building on a winning mentality ahead of next year's World Cup, and the fact they are unbeaten in 61 competitive matches on home soil since 1999 is a good omen.

Succeed in Qatar and then we can start to talk about Italy's legacy.

Brazil great Pele said he was "punching the air" after recovering sufficiently to be discharged from hospital on Thursday. 

The three-time World Cup winner underwent surgery to remove a tumour from his colon and spent time in the intensive care unit at the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo. 

Pele, who will turn 81 in October, was delighted to be returning home to continue his rehabilitation.

"When the path is difficult, celebrate each step of the journey. Focus on your happiness," Pele wrote in an Instagram post. 

"It's true that I can't jump anymore, but these past few days, I've been punching the air more times than usual. I am so happy to be back at home. 

"I want to thank the entire Albert Einstein Hospital team, who made my stay a pleasant one, with a humane and very affectionate welcome. 

"Thanks also to all of you, who from afar, make my life complete with so many messages of love." 

Pele remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for his country.   

Arsene Wenger is "ready to take that gamble" by attempting to push through plans for the World Cup to be staged every two years.

Wenger, now FIFA's chief of global football development, is the figurehead of a move to transform the game's calendar, with the Frenchman seeking influential support but also encountering serious opposition to the project.

The legendary Arsenal manager has proposed the World Cup is held every two years and that there are fewer international breaks throughout the year.

While FIFA claims the majority of supporters favour holding the tournament more frequently, the plans have been strongly criticised by other governing bodies.

CONMEBOL, which represents South American federations, argued a change "could distort the most important football competition on the planet".

European football governing body UEFA, meanwhile, fears players burning out – among a range of other negative factors – should the proposals get the go ahead.

However, Wenger is not backing down and believes his suggestion will only improve the sport in the long term.

"The risk is to make football better, and I'm ready to take that gamble," he told BBC Sport.

"The international match calendar is fixed until 2024. Until then, nothing can change. I've been guided by a few ideas to propose a plan to reshape the international calendar.

"The first one is to make football better all over the world. The second one is to have a more modern way and more simple way to organise the calendar. 

"Therefore, I want to reduce the number of qualifiers and to regroup the qualifying periods."

 

Wenger, who left Arsenal in 2018 after 22 years at the club, insisted he would have backed the plans even had he still been a club manager.

"I'd agree with what I propose because I think for the club it's much better," he said. "There's no interference during the season. I suffered a lot from interference during the season.

"It's not about me, it is about the proposal to make football better, clearer, more simple and more meaningful to the world.

"I am convinced that the clubs gain in it because they can focus completely, they have their players available for the whole season and the national teams benefit from it as well.

"There's no increase of number of games, there's a better rest period, less travelling and more quality competition. That's why I think this project is really defendable.

"Yesterday I was in a very long meeting with [players union] FIFPRO, we consult everybody. We are conscious that we need to talk to everybody. 

"I think I've convinced FIFPRO that in my programme the players were my first worry."

Wenger also rejected the argument that the World Cup will be devalued by being held every two years.

"The World Cup's such a huge event that I don't think it will diminish the prestige," he said. "You want to be the best in the world, and you want to be the best in the world every year.

"I'm not on an ego trip. I've been asked to help to shape the calendar of tomorrow, I consult the whole world."

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