French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet has called for Russia to be excluded from the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, following weeks of rising political tensions in the region. The conflict escalated further on Friday, with the fighting reaching the capital city of Kyiv. There was intense fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, on Sunday.

France won the last World Cup in Russia in 2018, beating Croatia 4-2 in the final in Moscow.

Russia had been set to host Poland in a qualifying playoff in March, but on Friday, UEFA said any international matches due to be held in Russia or Ukraine would have to be moved to a neutral venue, as well as confirming St Petersburg had been stripped of holding this season's Champions League final, which will now be played in Paris.

That followed a request from the Polish, Swedish and Czech FAs that Russia be barred from hosting any upcoming World Cup qualifiers. The winner of the tie between Poland and Russia would have been due to play either Sweden or the Czech Republic for a place at Qatar 2022. The decision regarding where the qualifiers are played and whether Russia can remain a part of them ultimately rests with FIFA.

Speaking to Le Parisien on Sunday, Le Graet believes football has a duty to act, and said he "would not oppose" removing Russia from the tournament.

"This is something that I have not yet discussed with other federations," he said. "I lean for an exclusion of Russia from the next World Cup. This is my first impulse. 

"Usually, I believe that sport is there to reconcile people and ease tensions, but this is going much too far. 

"And the world of sport, and in particular football, cannot remain neutral. I will certainly not oppose an exclusion of Russia."

FIFA refused to make a snap decision on whether Russia will be allowed to host World Cup play-off matches in March but said it is "monitoring the situation". 

Widespread condemnation followed Russia's full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine on Thursday.

Stats Perform understands that UEFA will confirm on Friday that St Petersburg will no longer host this season's Champions League final. 

In a joint statement, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, who are in the same qualification pathway as Russia for this year's World Cup, said they would not consider playing matches in the country. 

Russia are scheduled to take on Poland in Moscow on March 24. If they win, they will face Sweden or the Czech Republic at home five days later.

FIFA called for the "rapid cessation of hostilities and peace in Ukraine" but stopped short of confirming whether Russia's hosting rights would be taken away.

"FIFA condemns the use of force by Russia in Ukraine and any type of violence to resolve conflicts," the statement read. 

"Violence is never a solution and FIFA calls on all parties to restore peace through constructive dialogue. FIFA also continues to express its solidarity to the people affected by this conflict. 

"Regarding football matters in both Ukraine and Russia, FIFA will continue to monitor the situation and updates in relation to the upcoming FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifiers will be communicated in due course." 

Ukraine will also contest the 2022 World Cup play-offs, but the draw precludes them from playing at home. 

Juventus have confirmed reports Weston McKennie fractured the second and third metatarsals in his left foot against Villarreal.

McKennie had to be substituted late in Juve's 1-1 Champions League draw on Tuesday.

Reports soon followed of a double break for the United States midfielder, and the Bianconeri confirmed those claims on their return to Italy.

McKennie is expected to miss eight weeks, ruling him out of next month's World Cup qualifying triple-header with the USMNT.

Alex Sandro is set for a shorter lay-off, although Juve will also be without the left-back for the time being.

He took a blow to his calf and is to be evaluated again in 10 days.

Meanwhile, 20-year-old forward Kaio Jorge was set for surgery having sprained his knee, capping a day of miserable injury news for Juve.

Weston McKennie was injured against Villarreal on Tuesday in a blow to both Juventus and the United States.

Midfielder McKennie had to be helped from the pitch with nine minutes remaining of Juve's 1-1 Champions League draw.

And reports after the game suggested the former Schalke man had fractured two bones in his left foot.

Head coach Massimiliano Allegri was still waiting on official confirmation as he faced the media, saying: "He is going for an X-ray to his foot; we hope it is nothing serious."

An extended period on the sidelines would prompt concern for both club and country.

While Juve are battling for a top-four finish in Serie A and hoping to advance in the Champions League, the USMNT have vital World Cup qualifiers against Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica next month.

McKennie's international team-mate Giovanni Reyna left Borussia Dortmund's most recent match through injury.

Sergio Aguero intends to go the World Cup in Qatar and hopes it will be as part of Argentina's backroom staff. 

Former striker Aguero experienced chest pain in a match against Deportivo Alaves in October and it was determined he had a career-ending heart issue. 

However, the 33-year-old still wants to be part of Argentina's campaign in Qatar this year and hopes a role can be found for him. 

"I'm going to go to the World Cup. We are going to have a meeting this week. I want to be there," he told Radio 10 in Argentina.

"The idea is for me to join the coaching staff. I spoke with [head coach Lionel] Scaloni and also with [Argentine Football Association president] Claudio Tapia. 

"We have to try to give it a go to see what can be done." 

Aguero joined Barcelona in the hopes of playing alongside close friend Lionel Messi after the pair helped Argentina end their 28-year wait for a senior international trophy at the 2021 Copa America. 

Yet the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner ended up completing an incredible switch to Paris Saint-Germain. 

Messi came in for criticism following his display in the Champions League last-16 first-leg victory over Real Madrid, which was decided by a solitary Kylian Mbappe goal after the 34-year-old had failed to convert a penalty.

"How are the French media going to kill Messi? Leo played well. Were they watching the game backwards? Leo always plays five levels above," said Aguero.

 

FIFPRO has released a study confirming 75 per cent of professional male footballers are opposed to proposals by FIFA to hold a World Cup every two years.

FIFA are firmly pushing the idea of a biennial World Cup, despite opposition from UEFA, CONMEBOL and several of Europe's leading domestic competitions.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently declared their opposition, too.

But Arsene Wenger and FIFA president Gianni Infantino are convinced that holding a World Cup every two years, rather than every four, would be of benefit to the game on a global scale.

However, a study organised by FIFPRO (the Federation Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels) and national player unions has concluded that three out of four professionals in the men's game do not want a biennial tournament.

The survey gauged the opinions of over 1,000 players.

According to FIFPRO, "most players rank the World Cup and their domestic league as their favourite competitions." However, "only 21 percent of players believe the voice of players is respected and that their well-being is considered in the context of international football governance."

The study took place over six continents and 70 different nations were represented. It was supported by the player unions of England, Spain, Italy and France.

While 77 per cent of players from Europe and Asia prefer the World Cup to be played every four years, that dropped to 63 per cent of players from the Americas and then 49 per cent of players from Africa, with the remaining 51 per cent divided between a two or three-year cycle.

From this, FIFPRO concluded that: "While a clear majority of players support the current World Cup cycle, a demand exists, particularly in smaller and medium-sized markets, to further develop and strengthen national team competitions."

Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, FIFPRO general secretary, said: "The player survey shows most footballers around the world have a clear preference to play the World Cup every four years.

"At the same time, the results demonstrate the importance of domestic league competitions to players. These leagues are the bedrock of our game and we have to do more to strengthen them both for the sake of players and the overall stability of professional football."

Kai Havertz has his sights set on World Cup glory with Germany after securing the Club World Cup for Chelsea on Sunday. 

A penalty in extra-time from Havertz, who scored the winning goal in last season's Champions League final, saw Chelsea get their hands on the Club World Cup for the first time in their history thanks to a 2-1 win over Palmeiras in Abu Dhabi. 

The 22-year-old insisted he is focused on fighting for silverware on another four fronts with the Blues this season.

However, he has an eye on success with Germany at Qatar 2022 in December as well.

"Without a doubt, I want to be a World Cup winner this year," Havertz told Bild. 

"In the upcoming games with the national team, it's important to show yourself. 

"Nevertheless, I'm focused on the here and now with Chelsea. We can still the win the Premier League, Champions League, the EFL Cup final against Liverpool, and the FA Cup. We have big goals." 

Real Madrid and Barcelona had been credited with an interest in Havertz before he joined Chelsea in September 2020 for a reported £71million. 

Havertz is a fan of Spanish football but has no doubt picking the Premier League has enabled him to develop significantly despite stiff competition for game time at Stamford Bridge. 

"For me personally, the step to the Premier League was the right one. A lot of pundits saw me in LaLiga back then," said Havertz. 

"I like Spanish football a lot, but I'm also convinced that the Premier League has shaped me a lot in recent months and helped me progress. 

"When you play for a club like Chelsea, the competition is fierce. I was aware of that from the start. 

"Nothing is given to anyone. However, I'm convinced that if I play, I will repay the trust." 

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin is in favour of introducing a new 'final four' format in the Champions League from the 2024-25 season.

Under the current format, teams play home and away in the semi-finals for the right to meet in the final.

However, a 'final eight' event was trialled in 2020 out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with each quarter-final and semi-final played over one leg in host city Lisbon, which also staged the final.

Bayern Munich went on to win the tournament and the experiment was considered a hit, with big audience figures recorded for the seven matches.

Ceferin previously indicated he would be open to reverting to that format permanently, and the Slovenian has now confirmed he has already consulted various club presidents.

"We haven't yet discussed this properly because of the pandemic, which has taken up our day-to-day focus," he told French outlet Le Journal Du Dimanche.

"But my opinion is that it would be great. It should be more competitive and more interesting for the fans.

"I have discussed it with some club presidents, such as [Paris Saint-Germain chief Nasser] Al-Khelaifi, and they are in agreement.

"It's a simple equation to solve – we would just need to compensate clubs for the revenue they would lose from hosting the semi-final matches. That is possible.

"It would come in for the 2024-25 season at the earliest. But I doubt it could be done that quickly."

However, while Ceferin is open to change in UEFA's flagship club competition, he reiterated FIFA's proposed plans to make the World Cup a biennial competition make no sense.

"I'm sure that won't happen because it's a complete nonsense," he said.

"It's a populist project that would destroy football. It goes against all the principles of our sport, and those of the Olympic Games.

"It's incredible that a football organisation can propose that their players – on top of an already heavy schedule – should play a month-long tournament every summer.

"And just imagine how it would eat into women's football. Alongside South America, we have said that it won't work. Without us, it would no longer be a World Cup."

It's officially a World Cup year, that means footballers all over the globe will be hoping to get themselves into contention for their own shot at glory in Qatar.

Back in November, Stats Perform began their one-year countdown to the biggest show in football by identifying 11 uncapped players who could potential break into their respective national squads before Qatar 2022 got under way.

With February now upon us, we have revisited those players to see how they have been faring and whether a trip to World Cup looks any likelier…

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Granada

Having been one of LaLiga's form goalkeepers during the early stages of the season, Maximiano has been a little rocky lately. Since the start of December, he has conceded 10 times (excluding own goals) in the league despite those chances only being worth 7.9 xG – that puts him at least partly at fault for 2.1 goals, the sixth-worst over that period.

 

Jonathan Clauss (France) – 29, right-back, Lens

Clauss continues to show his worth in Ligue 1. Since December 1, his three assists have been bettered by only Dimitri Payet and Lovro Majer. Granted, the expected assists (xA) value of those was only 1.2, so there's an element of luck or benefiting from expert finishing, but he's still proving himself a good outlet both out wide and from set plays.

 

Bremer (Brazil) – 24, centre-back, Torino

Torino managed to keep Bremer in January before they extended his contract by a year to 2024 on Wednesday. Not only does that protect his value to the club, it was also a just reward for his reliable form. Since December 1, his tally of 21 interceptions is the second-highest among Serie A defenders, as is his 28 aerial wins.

Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Lille

Lille stood firm as Newcastle United tried to prise Botman away in January. Over the past two months, the Dutchman has continued to look an imperious presence at the back – his duel success rate (76.5 per cent) is the highest among defenders with at least 300 minutes on the pitch, while only two of those to have engaged in more than 11 aerials can better his success rate (79 per cent) in the air.

Angelino (Spain) – 25, left-back, RB Leipzig

Spain certainly aren't short of quality options in this area of the pitch, but Angelino is still a standout from an attacking sense. Since early December, his 3.0 xA is the best in the Bundesliga, while only five players have played more key passes than him (16).

 

Riqui Puig (Spain) – 22, midfielder, Barcelona

It's not looking good for Puig. It was thought Xavi's arrival might finally be the break he needed, but he has played only 158 minutes of LaLiga football in the past two months, and that was a period that saw Barca under real stress amid an injury and COVID-19 crisis. With players returning to action, including Pedri, few would be surprised to see his minutes reduce even further.

Christopher Nkunku (France) – 24, midfielder, RB Leipzig

Nkunku continues to look to be in with a great chance of forcing himself into France reckoning. Since we last checked on him, the versatile midfielder has scored four non-penalty Bundesliga goals, bettered by only four players (all out-and-out strikers), and laid on three assists. Only five players have tallied more goal involvements over the same period.

 

Alan Velasco (Argentina) – 19, winger, FC Dallas

Young talents leaving South American countries for MLS is becoming a recurring them – Velasco is the latest. The young winger became Dallas' record signing on February 1, reportedly costing $7million. He has not played much in recent months due to the Argentinian football calendar, so it will be intriguing to see if he kicks on when MLS starts again at the end of the month.

Cade Cowell (United States) – 18, forward, San Jose Earthquakes

The first success story on this list! Cowell was given his international bow in December as the USA beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0. He did only feature for 12 minutes, and it was a partly experimental squad, but a cap is a cap.

Amine Gouiri (France) – 21, forward, Nice

Gouiri is another who continues to plug away to good effect. He slowed a little, and his return of five goal involvements (three assists, two goals) in the specified period is bettered by as many as eight players, though only Payet has as many as seven. The exciting forward is still doing well, though he could do with another minor boost.

 

Matias Arezo (Uruguay) – 19, forward, Granada

With the Uruguayan season finishing in early December, Arezo has not played much since his form was last examined – though he did get one more goal to take his seasonal tally to 15 in 29 games for River Plate (URU). That form earned him his shot in Europe, with Granada pulling off a potentially major coup in bringing him to Spain for about €3million. He awaits a first senior cap, though Uruguay are back in an automatic qualification spot.

Philippe Coutinho was delighted to have finally ended the long wait between goals for Brazil after netting in the 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Paraguay in Belo Horizonte.

The 29-year-old playmaker, who joined Aston Villa on loan from Barcelona in January, netted a sublime long-range strike to make it 2-0 in the 62nd minute on Tuesday.

That goal marked Coutinho's first for his country since October 2020 when Brazil beat Bolivia 5-0 in their opening World Cup qualifier in this campaign.

It was also Coutinho's sixth goal from outside of the area for Brazil during Tite's tenure, with no player having scored more such goals in that time.

Coutinho, who has 65 caps to his name along with 19 goals, was back in the Brazil set-up for a second successive international break after missing much of 2021 with a knee injury, but had not featured for the Selecao since 2020 prior to starting against Ecuador last week.

"I was absent for a long time and I came out of a very complicated injury," Coutinho told reporters.

"I was called up for the previous two games for the Brazilian team but I hardly had a chance to play. I received a new opportunity now and I am happy to have delivered.

“I am very happy to have scored again for the Brazilian national team and to have scored again in this stadium with the Brazilian fans present."

Coutinho started and played 73 minutes in an offensive Brazilian formation, sitting behind a front three of Vinicius Junior, Matheus Cunha and Raphinha, with Neymar absent.

Lucas Paqueta and Coutinho offered plenty of attacking threat from midfield too but Brazil head coach Tite cooled excitement about the formation being a permanent fixture despite piling on four goals, with Raphinha and substitutes Antony and Rodrygo – the youngest player to score for the Selecao in this qualification campaign – also on target.

"I don’t believe much that the team is more offensive by having three strikers," Tite told reporters. "I see football as a balance.

"Those offensive players can only create if they have a creative midfield behind.

"A balanced team takes possession of the ball more times. I do not conceive of football where the pieces do not have harmony."

Brazil turned on the style and piled on the goals as they continued their perfect home World Cup qualifying record with a comfortable 4-0 win over Paraguay in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday.

Leeds United forward Raphinha had a goal disallowed by the VAR early before netting the opener in the 28th minute, with new Aston Villa signing Coutinho adding a second on 62 minutes for his first international goal since 2020.

Brazil added two more in the dying minutes as Ajax forward Antony curled in the third, before Newcastle United addition Bruno Guimaraes laid off for Rodrygo to tap home.

The victory means Selecao, who have already clinched their spot at Qatar 2022, are unbeaten in 15 qualifiers and remain four points clear of rivals Argentina at the top of the CONCACAF standings.

Brazil have also won seven out of seven qualifiers on home soil, netting 18 goals and conceding only once, while Paraguay officially cannot qualify for Qatar 2022 due to the defeat.

Panama remained undefeated all-time against Jamaica in World Cup qualification, rallying from a goal down to win 3-2 at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City on Sunday evening.

The visitors were ahead in the fifth minute when Michail Antonio converted from the penalty spot to give Jamaica its first goal against Panama in qualification since Marvin Elliott’s 2013 tally.

Panama pushed, however, and had its efforts rewarded by a penalty of its own in the 18th minute. But they came away empty-handed, as Eric Davis’ shot down the middle was saved by Jamaica GK Andre Blake to keep Jamaica in the lead.

The Panama equalizer came when Blake was beaten by his own defender just before the halftime break, with the goalkeeper trying to punch clear a cross from Edgar Yoel Barcenas, only to send it onto the head of Javain Brown and into his own net.

Davis worked to atone for his penalty miss in the 51st minute, taking advantage of a rebound from another Barcenas shot and sending a low blast past Blake to give Panama the 2-1 advantage.

The advantage was then extended in the 69th minute as Azmahar Ariano Navarro scored with a sweep of his foot after a Panama corner kick fell to him.

Jamaica wasn’t ready to concede defeat, though, with Andre Gray heading a cross past Panama goalkeeper Luis Mejia to put the Caribbean squad within striking distance.

In the end, though, Panama’s defence held tough and got the victory that keeps the Canaleros in sole possession of fourth place in the table.

Panama now travels to meet Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, while Jamaica returns home to square off with Costa Rica.

Brazil head coach Tite has criticized the decision to appoint a Colombian referee for Thursday's chaotic 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Ecuador.

Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan handed out four red cards throughout the game, including two to Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson which were both rescinded by the VAR, along with two overturned penalty awards for Ecuador.

Trailing 1-0 to Casemiro's first-half strike, Ecuador had a 55th-minute penalty awarded by Roldan overturned when it was determined Pervis Estupinan had dived in the box as opposed to being fouled by Raphinha.

In stoppage-time, the hosts again thought they had a penalty which could have led to the winner after a foul from Alisson but the award was overturned by the VAR, offering the Liverpool goalkeeper and Brazil a late reprieve.

Tite was critical of Roldan's "impulsiveness" but also the decision to appoint a referee from Colombia, who came into this matchday fourth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying behind Ecuador.

“Today there was no point in appointing a referee from the fourth country in the table, when the third and first were playing," Tite said at the post-game news conference.

"Roldan is a good referee, but it gives for interpretations. The designation took a bit of sensitivity."

Tite added: "It was a difficult game. The number of fouls was exaggerated, 20 fouls by Ecuador and 12 by us.

"The circumstances happened, it wasn't evil, it was impulsive. Incorrect, yes. And it needs to be corrected, yes. It needs to be mature, yes. But it wasn't evil."

Alisson was given a stoppage-time VAR reprieve after conceding a penalty as Brazil somehow clung on to a 1-1 draw against Ecuador in a chaotic World Cup qualifying classic.

Felix Torres equalised with 15 minutes to go and Ecuador looked set to grab the win that would put them on the brink of qualification when awarded a last-gasp penalty, but that opportunity was taken away in an ending that befitted the remarkable 90 minutes that preceded it.

The first half saw the red card brandished three times – the first two, for Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez and Brazil right-back Emerson Royal, were decisions that remained, but Alisson's was overturned.

All the controversy somewhat overshadowed Casemiro's early goal, which looked likely to be the winner given Ecuador had a goal wiped out and a penalty decision reversed soon after the restart, before Torres headed in.

Alisson was then sent off again, but for the second time his dismissal was overturned and Ecuador were denied their late spot-kick.

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni will miss their upcoming World Cup qualifier against Chile due to a positive COVID-19 test.

The Albiceleste have already qualified for Qatar 2022 with five matches to play in the CONMEBOL section.

Scaloni explained at a news conference on Wednesday he had "completed the isolation" but had not received the negative test he required to enter Chile.

With assistant Pablo Aimar also absent as a close contact, coaches Walter Samuel, Roberto Ayala and Diego Placente are set to lead Argentina on Thursday.

"Both Aimar and I are not going to be able to be part of the delegation," Scaloni said. "Pablo has been in his house for several days due to [being a] close contact.

"I completed the isolation several days ago, but I continue to test positive. To enter Chile you need a negative [test result].

"Walter Samuel, Roberto Ayala and Diego Placente are going to be present as part of the coaching staff."

Scaloni also confirmed players Alexis Mac Allister and Emiliano Buendia will miss the game, with the former testing positive for COVID-19 and the latter a close contact.

After their trip to Chile, Argentina are due to play at home to Colombia on Tuesday.

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