Roberto Mancini has "worked miracles" in charge of Italy and should not be hounded out of the role after their stunning failure to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.

That is the view of former Italy international Antonio Cassano, who described the current Azzurri vintage as "mediocre", citing last year's Euro 2020 triumph as proof of Mancini's brilliance.

Italy suffered a shock 1-0 loss to North Macedonia on Thursday to miss out on the World Cup for a second edition in a row, with some pointing the finger of blame of boss Mancini.

However, Cassano, who played 39 times and scored 10 goals for his country, said those critics "should be ashamed".

"Let's face it: our national team is a mediocre team and Mancini took them to the top of Europe last summer, making a miracle, playing in a way never seen before," he told Bobo TV. 

"I am truly sorry for Roberto, whoever asks for his resignation should be ashamed.

"We should all pray that Mancini will remain at the helm of the national team, he is the lifeline of Italy.

"[Ciro] Immobile, [Lorenzo] Insigne... many players seemed to me in difficulty. Italy has a mediocre team and Mancini had worked miracles so far."

The 39-year-old, who last played for his country in 2014, said Italy had been missing a talisman since Christian Vieri left the international stage in 2005.

He said: "Bobo, we haven't had a striker in the national team since you left."

Luis Enrique explained his reason for not signing a new contract as Spain coach is so that it is easy for him to depart if La Roja disappoint at the World Cup.

The 51-year-old former Barcelona player and coach returned for his second stint in charge of Spain's senior side in November 2019.

Five months earlier, he had stepped down for "family reasons" that were later confirmed to relate to his young daughter suffering with cancer. She died in August 2019.

When Luis Enrique made his return to the Spain setup, he only signed a three-year contract that would keep him in charge until the end of the 2022 World Cup.

Since then, he has led Spain to Qatar 2022 and presided over La Roja's run to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, impressing neutrals throughout the tournament.

However, despite what has been a largely positive spell at the helm, there remains a degree of doubt over Luis Enrique's future, which he was refreshingly honest about.

Asked why he had not yet signed a new contract beyond the World Cup, Luis Enrique – who has recently been linked with Manchester United – said: "I'm in heaven.

"Not renewing, I've done it for you [the media]. As I'm not going to have a contract [after the World Cup], if things go wrong in the World Cup, you won't have to ask me to be fired any more."

But his amusingly frank response was qualified by an insistence that there is no issue between himself and either Luis Rubiales or Jose Molina, respectively the Royal Spanish Football Federation's (RFEF) president and sporting director.

"I feel super supported by both the president and Molina," Luis Enrique continued. "They signed me not once but twice.

"In the circumstances in which I came back, I will never forget it. I am going to fulfil my commitment, which is until after the World Cup."

Spain's preparations ahead of the World Cup continue with a friendly against Albania on Saturday at Espanyol's RCDE Stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, near Barcelona.

It will be Spain's first match in Catalonia for 18 years, having last played in the region in February 2004 for a friendly with Peru at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium.

La Roja and Catalonia have had a rocky relationship over the years, but Luis Enrique is excited for such a momentous occasion.

He said: "It's going to be a party. I hope we're at that level. Eighteen years is a long time... We already know the circumstances surrounding this type of occasion, but we face it with great enthusiasm.

"I took it for granted that [the stadium] was going to be full. The last time I played [for a Spain team] in Barcelona, it was the final of the [1992] Olympics and it was full.

"It was one of the best matches of my life for the gold medal. I have no doubts, I hope we can do it, turn it into a party."

Gareth Bale took aim at the media again on Friday, responding to scathing recent coverage of him in Spain.

The Wales international was the hero for his country on Thursday after scoring two excellent goals to seal a 2-1 win against Austria and put them just one game away from qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar.

However, Bale has rarely featured for Real Madrid, his club side, this season, playing in just five of their 42 matches in all competitions, totalling 270 minutes on the field – the equivalent of three whole games.

Spanish outlet Marca has labelled the winger a "parasite", also accusing him of "sucking" money out of the club.

Bale had described the criticism as "disgusting" after the Austria win, and he took to Twitter on Friday to further express his exasperation, saying journalists needed to be held accountable for the impact of their reports on athletes.

"The Daily Mail shining a light on this piece of slanderous, derogatory and speculative journalism by Marca," he wrote.

"At a time where people are taking their own lives because of the callousness and relentlessness of the media, I want to know, who is holding these journalists and the news outlets that allow them to write articles like this, accountable?

"Fortunately I have developed thick skin during my time in the public spotlight, but that doesn't mean articles like these don't cause damage and upset personally and professionally to those at the receiving end of these malicious stories.

"I have witnessed the toll the media can take on people's mental and physical health."

Bale moved to the Santiago Bernabeu from Tottenham in 2013 and has won two LaLiga titles, a Copa del Rey, four Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups.

"The media expect superhuman performances from professional athletes, and will be the first to celebrate with them when they deliver," he continued. "Yet instead of commiserating with them when they show an ounce of human error, they are torn to shreds instead, encouraging anger and disappointment in their fans.

"The everyday pressures on athletes is immense, and it's as clear as day how negative media attention could easily send an already stressed athlete, or anybody in the public eye, over the edge.

"I hope that by the time our children are of an age where they are able to ingest news, that journalism ethics and standards will have been enforced more stringently.

"So I want to use my platform to encourage change in the way we publicly talk about, and criticise people, simply for the most part, not meeting the often unrealistic expectations that are projected onto them.

"We all know who the real Parasite is!"

England manager Gareth Southgate appeared to dismiss the idea of the Three Lions boycotting the Qatar World Cup as a form of protest.

Qatar's poor human rights record has been a concern during the build-up to the 2022 finals, and England captain Harry Kane revealed on Wednesday that he and his fellow senior players are looking to do something to help raise awareness of these and other issues around the tournament.

The Gulf nation's stance towards women and the LGBTQ+ community was widely pointed to as a problem before FIFA awarded it the tournament in 2010. 

Meanwhile, the deaths of thousands of migrant workers have been reported during preparation for the finals, although Qatar's organising committee disputed what it called "inaccurate claims" around the number of fatalities.

Speaking ahead of Saturday's friendly against Switzerland, Southgate was asked if boycotting the tournament was an option being considered.

"I don't really know what that achieves. It would be a big story but the tournament would still go ahead," he said.

"I think as soon as we have entered the tournament, that is the point you decide. We've known for years [that it would be held in Qatar]. Is the stance against Qatar as a country or the specific issue? If it is Qatar as a country, then we are intertwined with other issues like we have seen with Russia with all sorts of investment in our country.

"Are we all going to stop shopping at Sainsbury's as a protest against Qatar? We are in such a complex world with deals as we have seen in Saudi Arabia recently. On the one hand, people are talking about the investment in Newcastle, on the other we are going asking them to reduce oil prices so we can get our petrol cheaper.

"I think we are all observing and thinking this is really difficult. This is complicated. I know the issues themselves aren't but the repercussions and diplomatic relations are extremely complicated.

"It is possible [boycotting], but I don't think that is a decision myself and the players can make.

"My understanding is that the discussions that the FA has had with organisations like Amnesty International, is that they feel there would be more change if we go and these things are highlighted so that is guiding the thinking."

Southgate was joined at the news conference by Jordan Henderson, who revealed the players have been briefed on the issues around Qatar during this training camp.

"I'd reiterate what Harry said about it the other day, I think he spoke very well," the Liverpool midfielder said when asked about human rights issues. "We've been briefed this week, which is really important, on the issues that are currently happening there and have happened over the last few years.

"We're digesting that [as a team], coming up with ideas of what we want to do going forward. It's an opportunity to shine a light on issues and how we can make changes for the better.

"We don't want to rush into things... we'll continue to speak and come up with something we want to do as a team."

Italy's humiliating failure to qualify for the World Cup means "profound change" must follow the sorrow, according to Serie A president Lorenzo Casini.

A stunning 1-0 defeat to North Macedonia in Thursday's play-off semi-final in Palermo has left Italy knowing they will miss consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history.

The Azzurri will be absent at Qatar 2022, just as they played no part in Russia 2018, and there will be a process whereby some are likely to be held to account over such a dire outcome for the four-time winners.

Elation at triumphing at Euro 2020 has been replaced by suspicions that was a flicker of rude health amid serious worries over the health of the Italian game.

Casini said on Friday: "Failure to qualify for the final phase of the World Cup is a failure for the whole of Italian football, which must lead everyone to serious reflection and a profound change in our system.

"Right now I am only experiencing the great disappointment of all the fans. I am very sorry when I think of the girls and boys who are still waiting to see Italy at the World Cup and who must be able to continue growing in the blue dream.

"Serie A clubs and their players have always responded positively to the call of the national team and always will, also because it is about the sporting commitment that unites the country and should always make us overcome every allegiance and every division. The national team belongs to everyone."

Roberto Mancini was backed to stay on as head coach by Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina in the immediate aftermath of Italy's defeat.

Gravina wanted the previous round of Serie A fixtures to be postponed to give Italy more time to prepare for the game, but his request was denied by the league. 

"I'm sorry the boys only met for one day to prepare for the game," Gravina said after Thursday's game. "It doesn't help, but I don't want to cause a controversy."

Brazil head coach Tite was emotional after his side's 4-0 win over Chile in World Cup qualifying on Thursday in what may his final game in charge on home soil.

Tite previously announced he would exit the role after the 2022 World Cup, having taken over in June.

During Tite's tenure Brazil won the 2019 Copa America, but were eliminated from the 2018 World Cup in the quarter-finals.

More recently, Tite guided Brazil to 2022 World Cup qualification in November with several games to spare, with Selecao currently unbeaten in their qualifying campaign with 13 wins and three draws.

Brazil are currently on a 10-game unbeaten run in all competitions, dating back to last year's Copa America final defeat to Argentina.

"It has many meanings, many situations," Tite said after the win over Chile about his final game as head coach on home soil.

"There are many and they are very particular. Many thanks to the fans who attended the Maracana today, thank you very much."

Tite may still lead Selecao in Brazil again with the postponed qualifier against Argentina yet to be re-scheduled although the match would be a dead rubber with both sides comfortably qualified, with appetite low for a re-match.

On the win over the Chileans, who appear destined to miss the 2022 World Cup, Tite praised his side's level of performance, without pinpointing individuals.

"Two aspects have swayed me: the players with the personality and confidence to come to the national team and repeat the performances of their clubs, this is difficult due to the expectation of wearing the national team's shirt," Tite said.

Brazil's next qualifier is away to Bolivia on Tuesday, where they will be without Neymar and Vinicius Junior after they picked up yellow cards against Chile forcing suspension.

Gareth Bale described the criticism he has been the subject of as a Real Madrid player as "disgusting" after leading Wales into a World Cup play-off final.

Bale has played in just five of Madrid's 42 matches in all competitions this season, totalling 270 minutes on the field – the equivalent of three whole games.

Once the most expensive player in world football, the winger was absent for Madrid's most recent match, a painful 4-0 defeat to bitter rivals Barcelona.

However, Bale was back and back to his best when Wales came calling on Thursday.

The 32-year-old captained his country to a 2-1 win against Austria in their play-off semi-final, scoring two sublime goals – the first a breathtaking free-kick.

Bale appeared to play through the pain barrier in a brilliant display, eventually making way while holding his groin.

The former Tottenham man appeared to enjoy the celebrations, but his tone shifted slightly when asked if he had a message for his critics in Spain.

"No," he told Sky Sports. "I don't need to send a message, honestly. It's a waste of my time.

"It's disgusting, they should all be ashamed of themselves. I'm not fussed. End of."

Bale has come into form at a great time for Wales, scoring five goals in his past four international appearances – more than in his previous 28 games for his country (four).

In European qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, only five players have been involved in more goals than Bale's eight (five goals, three assists).

Wales will play either Scotland or Ukraine for a place in Qatar, with that decider at home, where Bale and Co. are unbeaten in 17 games in all competitions.

Ecuador qualified for the 2022 World Cup on Thursday despite a 3-1 defeat to Paraguay, benefiting from a victory for Uruguay that also sent the two-time champions to Qatar.

La Tri, who failed to make Russia 2018, knew they needed only a point to be sure of a top-four finish with a game to spare.

However, already-eliminated Paraguay were clinical in Ciudad del Este, three up before the hour mark through Robert Morales, a Piero Hincapie own goal and Miguel Almiron.

Ecuador threatened a dramatic fightback as Jordy Caicedo scored a late penalty and Blas Riveros was sent off, but ultimately their fate was decided in Montevideo.

The third-placed side joined Uruguay in advancing with both teams on 25 points, four ahead of fifth-placed Peru, who went down 1-0 to Giorgian De Arrascaeta's goal late in the first half.

Peru are still in control of their play-off fate, although both Colombia and Chile can catch them as Paraguay attempt to again play the role of spoilers in Tuesday's final match in Lima.

Cristiano Ronaldo's dip in goalscoring form is of no concern to Fernando Santos, who felt he was "tremendous" in Portugal's World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final success against Turkey. 

First-half efforts from Otavio and Diogo Jota put Portugal in control in Porto, but Burak Yilmaz pulled one back after the hour mark and had a chance to equalise from the penalty spot with five minutes remaining. 

However, Yilmaz missed the target from 12 yards and Matheus Nunes completed a 3-1 win for the hosts in stoppage time, with Ronaldo hitting the bar in the final act of the game. 

The Manchester United forward had five efforts on goal and hit the target with two of them. Diogo Jota (38), who played 20 minutes fewer than Ronaldo, was Portugal's only outfield starter with fewer touches than him (40).  

Ronaldo also failed to find the back of the net in Portugal's draw with the Republic of Ireland and the defeat to Serbia that cost Santos' men automatic qualification for Qatar. 

He has scored just four goals in his past 13 appearances in all competitions for club and country, but the Portugal boss is unconcerned by his displays. 

"Ronaldo is judged on the goals he scores, it's always that way," said Santos. 

"From my perspective, he played a tremendous game, bringing the group together, working and pressing with the intensity of the game. 

"He didn't score, but that doesn't invalidate what was an excellent performance for Ronaldo. He had several opportunities. He didn't convert them, but he opened up a lot of spaces for others and that's something to highlight."

Ronaldo is one of several veterans in the side that it has been suggested should be phased out by Santos to make way for a new generation, but the coach spoke out in defence of the more experienced options at his disposal. 

"The one that everyone is asking to be replaced is the only golden generation. I'm very sorry to say this, but it is the only one that has brought a trophy to Portugal," he said. 

"Now, if you ask me if Portuguese football has a bright future ahead of it, with high-quality players capable of responding at any time, I'd say yes. 

"Portugal have always had great players, but the golden generation is the one that won the gold." 

Gareth Bale scored a pair of stunning goals to secure a home World Cup play-off final for Wales against either Scotland or Ukraine.

Wales have not qualified for a World Cup since 1958 and surely will not get a better opportunity than ahead of Qatar 2022.

Rob Page's side hosted Austria in their play-off semi-final on Thursday and once again relied on Real Madrid superstar Bale to prove the difference in a 2-1 win.

He netted the opener with a sublime first-half free-kick, then doubled Wales' lead with another brilliant effort, placed high past the Austria goalkeeper.

Only a Ben Davies own goal – deflecting Marcel Sabitzer's shot beyond Wayne Hennessey – threatened to spoil the Welsh party, as they held on despite Bale's withdrawal in stoppage time with an apparent groin injury.

Bale will at least have time to recover from that issue before the final, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine saw the former banned from FIFA competitions and the latter allowed to postpone their semi against Scotland.

No date has yet been set for the Scotland tie, with Steve Clarke's men instead facing Poland – Russia's planned play-off opponents – in a friendly they drew 1-1 on Thursday.

Krzysztof Piatek's 94th-minute penalty rescued a draw for Poland, albeit that goal came earlier than Sweden's decisive strike against Czech Republic.

Sweden will be Poland's final opponents after Robin Quaison finished off a smart team move with 10 minutes remaining in extra time following a goalless draw – that 1-0 victory teeing up the trip to Chorzow on Tuesday.

Roberto Mancini described Italy's shock World Cup qualifying play-off exit to North Macedonia as the antithesis of the Azzurri's Euro 2020 triumph.

Only eight months have passed since Mancini's men defeated England in a penalty shoot-out at Wembley to be crowned European champions.

But tears of joy were replaced by howls of agony in Palermo on Thursday as Aleksandar Trajkovski's 92nd-minute strike earned the minnows a memorable victory and a final against Portugal in pathway C of UEFA qualification.

For head coach Mancini, the chain of events since that day in London – including his side's failure to qualify from Group C – is difficult to fathom.

"Just as the Euros was the most wonderful experience of my life, this was the biggest disappointment," he told Rai.

"We can't say anything but this is football. Sometimes incredible things happen.

"Maybe we shouldn't have been there, we did everything to win it. Some matches are like that and it's difficult to talk about it. 

"The victory at the Euros was absolutely deserved, we played great football. Then some of the luck we had in that tournament turned into complete bad luck, as some unbelievable things happened from September onwards.

"We dominated the group, all we needed was one of those moments to go well, but neither of them did. Tonight, it feels almost as if conceding a goal at the 92nd minute was fitting.

"This is a group of fine players and I am sorry for them."

The loss is sure to lead to questions over Mancini's future, with even his Euros triumph unlikely to buy him much favour after a desperately disappointing defeat, which means Italy have failed to qualify for consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history.

But Mancini said it would be wrong to discuss such matters so soon after the event.

"We will see. I think everyone is too disappointed right now to talk about the future," he added.

"I have to say, I care more for my lads now than I did in July. This is such a tough moment, my affection for them is immense. 

"It's too early to say what happens next, as there is such disappointment, but at the same time this is a squad of great players with a bright future."

Italy have done all this before.

The Azzurri were World Cup regulars – and contenders – until remarkably failing to qualify for the first time since the 1958 tournament when they were beaten by Sweden in the play-offs for Russia 2018.

Of course, Italy feared a repeat when they were consigned to the play-off route again for Qatar 2022, but a potential final against Portugal was surely of greater concern than a home semi with North Macedonia.

Sensationally, however, the visitors stunned the European champions in Palermo, where Aleksandar Trajkovski's 92nd-minute blast secured the unlikeliest of 1-0 wins.

It means Italy are yet again featuring on a list of shock World Cup absentees.

ITALY/SPAIN 1958

Until these past two upsets, Italy's only failure to qualify for the World Cup had come in the 1950s. Needing to beat Northern Ireland in their final game of the three-team group, the Azzurri slumped to a 2-1 loss in Belfast. More surprising was the absence of Spain, as a team of legends including Alfredo Di Stefano and Luis Suarez missed out on a place in Sweden. A draw with Switzerland and defeat to Scotland meant that 4-1 victories in both return matches were not enough to salvage their hopes.

ENGLAND 1974

England were on top of the world in 1966 having lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on home turf. It remains the Three Lions' only triumph at a World Cup and, eight years later, England were not even at the tournament held in West Germany. In a three-team group with Wales and Poland, a 2-0 defeat and 1-1 draw with the latter meant Alf Ramsey's side did not qualify. Twenty years later, England again disappointed as they failed to qualify for USA '94 under Graham Taylor.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA 1978

Having won the European Championship two years previously with their attractive brand of football, there were high hopes for Czechoslovakia heading into qualifying for the tournament in Argentina. However, battles of Britain proved their downfall as losses in Wales and Scotland scuppered their hopes of adding World Cup glory to their European triumph.

NETHERLANDS 1986

After reaching the World Cup final in both 1974 and 1978, there was a down period for Netherlands, who missed out in '82 and also failed to qualify for Euro '84. A crop of players including Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Marco van Basten were expected to bring about a turnaround in fortunes for the Dutch ahead of the next World Cup in Mexico. However, they had to settle for a play-off against neighbours Belgium after finishing second in their qualifying group, and Georges Grun's header with just five minutes left on the clock saw them crash out on away goals. Netherlands also failed to qualify in 2002 and were not in Russia four years ago.

FRANCE 1994

Les Bleus had failed to qualify for Italia '90 having finished third in 1986. That failure was accepted as something of a transitional period, but a star-studded team featuring the likes of Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona were unable to secure the necessary result against Bulgaria in their final qualifier for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. France led through Eric Cantona but were pegged back by an Emil Kostadinov leveller before half-time. Gerard Houllier's side looked set to cling on to the point that would see them through until David Ginola infamously gave the ball away with an ill-judged cross in the final minute that allowed Kostadinov to make it 2-1 on the break, leaving French hopes dashed.

EGYPT 2010

Incredibly, Egypt's appearance at the 2018 World Cup was their first since 1990. That is despite their 2000s domination of the Africa Cup of Nations, with three consecutive victories between 2006 and 2010. Their failure to reach South Africa 12 years ago was arguably the greatest disappointment. After finishing with an identical record to Algeria, a play-off was needed to separate the two, with Egypt falling to a 1-0 defeat to extend their wait for a return to the global stage.

CHILE 2018

The depth of talent in South America means there are always likely to be notable casualties, but even then the two-time defending Copa America champions would have expected to contend on a global stage in Russia. However, Chile could only finish sixth in an incredibly tight group, without even a play-off to show for their efforts while Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to qualification with a hat-trick against Ecuador – his own participation in the finals having been in question until that point.

Burak Yilmaz's late penalty miss proved costly as Turkey fell to a 3-1 loss to Portugal in their 2022 World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final on Thursday.  

Otavio scored his second international goal in just his third cap to put Portugal in front, with Diogo Jota doubling their advantage before half-time.  

Yilmaz pulled one back for Turkey after the hour mark and had a chance to take the game to extra time by making it 2-2 after referee Daniel Siebert awarded the visitors a penalty for Jose Fonte clipping Enes Unal.  

However, Yilmaz's spot-kick clipped the crossbar on its way over and Matheus Nunes rubbed salt into the wound in stoppage time, ensuring it was Portugal who advanced to the final against North Macedonia, who earned a shock 1-0 triumph over European champions Italy.

Portugal started brightly and took the lead when Otavio scored on the follow-up after Bernardo Silva's shot was tipped onto the post by Ugurcan Cakir. 

Turkey responded positively to going behind but Portugal doubled their advantage before half-time when Jota guided Otavio's exquisite delivery into the bottom-right corner with a pinpoint header.  

Yilmaz pulled one back for Turkey when he stabbed a cool finish past Diogo Costa in the 66th minute after an excellent one-two with Cengiz Under.  

The game looked destined to be heading for extra time when the referee pointed to the spot after a trip to the pitchside monitor with five minutes remaining, but Yilmaz was unable to convert. 

It proved to be Turkey's undoing as substitute Matheus put the result beyond doubt when he finished off a pass from Rafael Leao in the 94th minute to send Portugal through.

Julian Weigl was taken aback by his recall to the Germany squad after a five-year absence, having previously been considered a potential future superstar.

Weigl rose to prominence at Borussia Dortmund, earning his first senior Germany cap 14 months after moving to BVB from 1860 Munich in 2015 as a 19-year-old.

His form during his first couple of seasons in the Bundesliga drew links with some of Europe's biggest clubs, with Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Manchester City apparently particularly keen on the talented deep-lying playmaker.

But he struggled to maintain that level after Thomas Tuchel's exit and was frustrated by untimely injuries, ultimately falling out of favour and being sold to Benfica for a reported €20million in January 2020.

The move was indicative of the decline in Weigl's reputation and he was being linked with another move less than a year after joining Benfica due to early struggles with Jorge Jesus.

But this season he has become a key figure and played in seven of Benfica's eight matches en route to the Champions League quarter-finals, helping him back into the Germany setup.

"When the coach called me, I was with my team-mate Soualiho Meite. I couldn't believe that Hansi [Flick] had called me and that I'd missed it," he told reporters.

"I knew I had to call him back. I was absolutely thrilled, we chatted for a short while and then I immediately rang my parents and my wife. They were some emotional phone calls. My family and my wife were also over the moon.

"I was extremely pleased when I got the call from Hansi. I wasn't expecting it. When you're putting in good performances for your club, you do get your hopes up a little bit, but it still came as a surprise.

"I was looking forward to seeing the lads again, and so I arrive here with a really positive energy. I've always looked out for when the national squad gets announced, and I'm more than aware that you have to be performing at the top level at your club week-in, week-out to earn your selection.

"But I never once said to myself at any time that my performances deserved to be rewarded with a call-up – I simply tried to keep concentration on myself and my game. Because of that, the eventual call-up was even more of a pleasant surprise."

Despite the promise he showed early on at Dortmund, Weigl only ever featured five times for Germany.

His most recent outing was 66 minutes in a friendly with England way back in March 2017 – now 26, Weigl does not think his playing style has changed significantly, but leaving Germany helped him grow and he feels better physically.

"Generally speaking, I'm still the same player," he continued. "What's changed is that I've become more mature and more experienced – playing abroad has certainly helped me in this regard, as well as becoming a father.

"My daughter helps me to relax, as my life is so fast-paced. I've improved from a physical perspective, too."

Weigl's recall comes at a potentially critical moment as well. With the World Cup starting in less than eight months, the midfielder surely has a genuine opportunity of being in the selection that travels to Qatar.

He is now focused on proving to Flick that he is worthy of consideration.

"I'm trying to show off what I can do every day that I'm here, as well as take on board the ideas of the head coach and work them into my game," he said.

"I'm asking for the ball a lot in the sessions and I'm not afraid to do so, because that's how I'm going to prove to the head coach that I'm a serious option for the World Cup squad, because I can be relied upon at any time and that I can put in a solid performance when needed."

Germany, who have already qualified for the World Cup, will face Israel and the Netherlands in friendlies during this international window.

Will it be Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane? Italy or Portugal – or indeed neither? Can Canada end their long wait, and are the United States and Australia at risk of missing out?

Those questions and plenty more are set to be answered over the next week or so as World Cup qualifying concludes for many nations.

Just 15 of the 32 participants have so far been confirmed for Qatar 2022, leaving 48 teams battling for the 17 remaining spots.

Fourteen more countries will be assured of a finals berth come the end of next week in what is very much crunch time for those still in contention.

Stats Perform looks at the key talking points.

Egypt seeking revenge in AFCON final repeat

Less than two months on from meeting in the Africa Cup of Nations final, Egypt and Senegal face off over two legs for a place in Qatar.

Senegal prevailed in a penalty shoot-out to claim their first AFCON crown and, buoyed by that triumph, will consider themselves as favourites here.

While both teams boast an array of top-class talent, this fixture is being billed as a showdown between Liverpool team-mates Salah and Mane.

The two biggest stars in African football, only one of the pair will be part of the World Cup later this year – and neither will fancy watching it all unfold from home.

This is not the only grudge match taking place in the CAF section over the next week and a half, as fierce rivals Ghana and Nigeria will also face off in a two-legged play-off.

Cameroon are up against Algeria, Mali take on Tunisia and DR Congo meet Morocco in the other three ties, each of which will be concluded on March 29.

European heavyweights on collision course

Since the play-off draw in the UEFA section took place in November, all talk has centered around a potential meeting between Italy and Portugal for a place in the finals.

The winners of the past two European Championships, either the Azzurri or the Selecao will miss out on the biggest tournament of them all.

It should never have been this way, of course, as both teams were strong favourites to finish top of their groups and qualify automatically.

Italy finished second to Switzerland and Portugal were runners-up to Serbia, meaning the sides must now come through two qualifying ties.

First up for the reigning European champions is a meeting with North Macedonia in Palermo, while Portugal face Turkey in Porto, with the winners of both ties advancing.

Should, as expected, Italy and Portugal come through those semi-finals, the latter will have the advantage of staging the final on home soil five days later.

For Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, it presents what will surely be his last chance to play at a record-equalling fifth World Cup.

 

Pathways impacted by political events

Path C of UEFA qualifying is undoubtedly the most eye-catching, but there are also some tasty fixtures in the other two sections – not least a possible Home Nations derby.

Scotland and Wales were kept apart in the Path B semi-finals but could meet in the final should they overcome Ukraine and Austria respectively.

However, due to ongoing events in Ukraine, their game against Scotland has been pushed back – likely until June – as has the final involving either Wales or Austria.

In Path C, Russia had been due to face Poland, but the invasion of Ukraine forced FIFA and UEFA's hand and they have been banned from competing.

Poland have therefore been handed a bye to the qualifying play-off final, where either Sweden or the Czech Republic await. That match will be contested next week as planned.

Canada on verge of ending long wait, USA with work to do

The United States qualified for every World Cup between 1990 and 2014, but they missed out on a place at Russia 2018 after an embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

Gregg Berhalter's side are by no means assured of one of the three automatic qualification spots in the CONCACAF section this time around, either.

USA sit second with three games to go, but they still have to travel to third-placed Mexico, as well as facing Panama and Costa Rica, who occupy fourth and fifth respectively.

Level on points with Mexico and four ahead of Costa Rica, it could be a tense finale to qualifying for the Stars and Stripes.

That should not be the case for Canada, who are eight points clear of fourth and are all but assured of ending their 36-year wait to make a second World Cup finals appearance.

Brazil and Argentina through, but who will join them?

The drawn-out South American qualifiers are nearing their conclusion and only four of the 10 sides know their fate at this juncture.

It has been plain sailing for Brazil and Argentina, who are assured of an automatic qualifying spot with three games to go, including a rescheduled meeting between the pair.

Behind those perennial World Cup representatives are Ecuador, who have been the surprise package in qualifying and can finish no lower than fifth.

Ecuador will not be content with anything other than a top-four finish, though, and they can make certain of that with victory over Paraguay.

Assuming Ecuador get over the line, that will leave Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia battling it out for progression, which sets up some intriguing fixtures.

Uruguay occupy fourth place, meaning their qualifying aspirations are in their own hands, but they have Peru and Chile – the two sides behind them – still to face.

Socceroos sweating on finals spot

Only four teams advance automatically from the CONMEBOL section, with the team in fifth entering a play-off against the winner of the AFC fourth round in a one-off tie in June.

That may well turn out to be Australia as the Socceroos are five and four points behind top two Saudi Arabia and Japan in Group B with two games to go.

However, those remaining two fixtures are against those nations occupying automatic qualification places, so Australia may yet sneak through.

Iran and South Korea have already made certain of progression in Group A, meanwhile, leaving the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iraq to compete for third place.

The two third-placed finishers – which, as it stands, are Australia and the UAE – will meet in a one-legged match ahead of that aforementioned play-off with a CONMEBOL side.

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