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.

FIFA has outlined how the Qatar 2022 World Cup draw will be carried out, including the basis for seeding.

The draw is scheduled to take place in Doha on Friday, April 1, by which time 29 of the 32 participants will have been confirmed for the tournament, which is set to run from November 21 to December 18.

World Cup qualifying continues this week, with 17 places still up for grabs for a place in Qatar.

World governing body FIFA confirmed hosts Qatar will be among the first seeds, along with the seven top-ranked qualified countries according to the FIFA men's world rankings, which will be next issued on March 31.

"The countries occupying positions 8-15 in the ranking of the qualified teams will be allocated to Pot 2, while the 16th-23rd best-ranked qualifiers will be placed in Pot 3," FIFA added in a statement.

"Finally, Pot 4 will include the qualified teams in positions 24 to 28, plus three placeholders representing the two winners of the intercontinental play-offs and the remaining UEFA play-off winner.

"The intercontinental play-offs will be contested on 13-14 June in Qatar, with the AFC representative facing the CONMEBOL representative and the CONCACAF representative taking on the OFC representative, per the draw held on 26 November 2021.

"The final team to qualify through the UEFA play-offs will also be determined in the May-June international window, as per the decision taken by the bureau of the FIFA organising committee on 8 March."

The nations currently occupying the top seven places in the FIFA men's world rankings are Belgium, Brazil, France, Argentina, England, Italy and Spain, though this could change when the list is updated at the end of this month.

Portugal are currently in eighth spot, and would therefore take Italy's place in pot one should they qualify as both are in the same European play-off qualifying path.

A request from Russia to freeze the ban on its football teams in FIFA competitions has been turned down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

CAS made a similar announcement on Tuesday regarding UEFA competitions, and this latest decision all but confirms that Russia will not be a part of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with their qualifying play-off semi-final due to be played next Thursday.

Russia had been scheduled to face Poland, but FIFA instead handed their opponents a bye to the final of their play-off route.

Poland will now play either Sweden or the Czech Republic – with that semi-final on March 24 still set to go ahead – for a place at Qatar 2022.

Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic each announced they would refuse to play Russia due to the ongoing events in Ukraine.

The Russian Football Union lodged an appeal to CAS after its clubs and national team were banned from all FIFA and UEFA competitions "until further notice".

The joint-decision taken by FIFA and UEFA followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago.

Russia "categorically disagreed" with the ban and submitted its appeal, while also seeking an initial stay of execution.

However, CAS confirmed on Friday that it has rejected that request, confirming that "the Challenged Decision remains in force" during proceedings.

A media release from CAS read: "The President of the Appeals Arbitration Division of the Court of Arbitration for Sport has rejected the request filed by the Football Union of Russia (FUR) to stay, for the duration of the CAS proceedings, the execution of the FIFA Council's decision to suspend all Russian teams and clubs from participation in its competitions until further notice (the Challenged decision).

"Accordingly, the Challenged Decision remains in force and all Russian teams and clubs continue to be suspended from participation in FIFA competitions. The CAS arbitration proceedings continue. A Panel of arbitrators is currently being constituted and the parties are exchanging written submissions. No hearing has been fixed yet."

Russian football chiefs have failed in an attempt to suspend the ban on their teams appearing in UEFA competitions.

The Russian Football Union (FUR) lodged an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) after its clubs and national team were banned from all FIFA and UEFA competitions "until further notice".

The joint-decision taken by FIFA and UEFA followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago.

Russia "categorically disagreed" with the ban and submitted its appeal, while also seeking an initial stay of execution.

However, CAS, which has yet to announce a schedule for the appeal hearing, has refused to put UEFA's sanctions on hold.

"The challenged decision remains in force and all Russian teams and clubs continue to be suspended from participation in UEFA competitions," CAS said in a statement.

Spartak Moscow were Russia's only remaining representative in European club competition at the time of the decision, with opponents RB Leipzig receiving a bye to the Europa League quarter-finals.

Tuesday's CAS announcement only applies to UEFA competitions. Russia are hoping to overturn a FIFA ban that would potentially allow them to play in the World Cup.

Russia were due to face Poland in a qualifying play-off semi-final later this month, but FIFA instead handed their opponents a bye to the final.

Should Russia fail in their challenge to that ruling, Poland will face either Sweden or the Czech Republic – with that semi-final on March 24 still set to go ahead – for a place at Qatar 2022.

Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have each announced they will refuse to play Russia due to ongoing events in Ukraine.

The Mexican Football Federation (FMF) have barred fans from attending Queretaro home games for one year as the official sanctions following Saturday's Liga MX match riot were handed down.

Violence broke out during Saturday's Liga MX match between Guadalajara sides Queretaro and Atlas, forcing fans to stream onto the pitch to escape the trouble with 26 supporters reported to have been hospitalised from the mass brawl.

FIFA had called for "swift justice" and condemned the actions of those involved in the ugly brawl.

Liga MX president Mikel Arriola and Mexican Football Federation president Yon de Luisa announced the sanctions on Tuesday that apply to all Queretaro home games, including women's and youth teams.

The fan group named "barras" have also been banned from the stadium for three years and will not be permitted to attend any stadiums for one year.

Queretaro's ownership group have also been ordered to transfer control of the team to its previous owners. The club must also be sold to new owners by the end of 2022 otherwise the league will take control.

The exiled owners have been banned from involvement in any Mexican football activity for the next years.

“What happened last weekend not only put many lives in danger, it also damaged the reputation of the state of Queretaro, its people and the club, of Liga MX and of Mexican football both nationally and internationally,” De Luisa said.

Arriolo added: "We don’t want criminals in disguise."

Mexican newspaper El Universal reported three supporters were in a serious condition in hospital on Sunday, with a further three having been discharged. Mauricio Kuri, governor of the state of Queretaro, denied reports there had been deaths.

Poland have been awarded a bye through to the World Cup qualifying play-off final following the postponement of their clash with Russia.

FIFA confirmed the news on Tuesday, though Russia have indicated that they will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against a ban on its national teams from competing.

Should the decision be upheld, Poland will face either Sweden or the Czech Republic – with that semi-final on March 24 still set to go ahead – for a place at Qatar 2022.

That 'Path B' final will be held at the Silesian Stadium in Chorzow on March 29.

FIFA's decision comes on the back of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic announcing last week they would each refuse to play Russia due to ongoing events in Ukraine.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday 24 following weeks of rising political tensions in the region, with more than two million citizens fleeing the country.

Meanwhile, FIFA has also confirmed that Ukraine's 'Path A' semi-final with Scotland at Hampden Park, scheduled for March 24, will now take place in June.

Ukraine requested that the game be pushed back due to "the impossibility of organising both the travel and training of a team under the current circumstances".

The other semi-final in that side of the draw, the clash between Wales and Austria in Cardiff on the same day, will go ahead as planned.

However, the final will be postponed until after the Scotland and Ukraine game is played.

FIFA has announced a series of temporary measures to facilitate the departure of players and coaches from Ukraine and Russia.

World football's governing body had already banned Russian clubs and teams from its competitions in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, although Russia has since made clear its intention to appeal such sanctions.

FIFA has now confirmed a number of changes to registration and contract rules, designed to benefit players and staff who have been directly impacted by the conflict.

All contracts of foreign players and coaches working in Ukraine, FIFA has announced, will be automatically suspended until June 30, 2022, "in order to provide players and coaches with the opportunity to work and receive a salary [abroad], and to protect Ukrainian clubs."

Meanwhile, FIFA has also moved to make it easier for foreign coaches or players plying their trade in Russia to leave the country, should they wish to do so.

Foreign coaches or players will now have the right to unilaterally suspend their contracts with Russian clubs until the end of June this year. 

Shakhtar Donetsk head coach Roberto De Zerbi as well as a plethora of Brazilian players at the same club, are amongst those who could potentially seek to work outside of Ukraine for the remainder of the season.

The invasion of Ukraine has attracted widespread condemnation from across the sporting world, while two high-profile foreign Russian Premier League coaches suddenly left their posts after the invasion.

Former Norwich City boss Daniel Farke quit his role as Krasnodar coach last week without managing a single game, while Markus Gisdol left Lokomotiv Moscow, telling German newspaper BILD that he could not work in a nation "whose leader has invaded another country in the middle of Europe."

FIFA has called for "swift justice" after Mexican football was shamed by a mass brawl between supporters in the Liga MX game between Queretaro and Atlas.

The world governing body said the violence was "barbaric" and "tragic", with 26 supporters reported to have been hospitalised after Saturday's top-flight fixture.

Violence broke out just beyond the hour mark at Estadio Corregidora, with visitors Atlas leading 1-0, forcing fans to stream onto the pitch to escape the trouble.

Any hope of restarting the match was extinguished as fighting spread around the upper bowl of the stadium.

Mexican newspaper El Universal reported three supporters were in a serious condition in hospital on Sunday, with a further three having been discharged. Quoting Mauricio Kuri, governor of the state of Queretaro, the report said two of those taken to hospital were women.

League authorities called off the weekend's remaining games, while Atlas executive president Jose Riestra said the episode was "truly unfortunate, very far from the values ​​that football represents".

Now FIFA has expressed its dismay and called for those responsible to be held to account.

In a statement on Sunday, it said: "FIFA is shocked at the tragic incident that took place at La Corregidora stadium in the city of Queretaro during the fixture between Queretaro and Atlas. The violence at the La Corregidora stadium was unacceptable and intolerable.

"FIFA joins the Mexican Football Association and CONCACAF in condemning this barbaric incident and encouraging the local authorities to bring swift justice to those responsible. Our thoughts are with all those who suffered its consequences.

"Once again FIFA would like to stress that violence should have absolutely no place in football and we will continue working with all parties to eradicate it from our game."

Kuri denied reports there had been deaths.

He said on Twitter: "I know that the images of the stadium are disturbing and that the names of people who are supposed to have died have been released; but today we confirm that fortunately they are ALIVE and receiving medical attention.

"We have no reason to lie, we will continue to make all verified information available to the public."

Kuri added: "This violent and angry minority does not represent Queretanos or our values. It is a tragedy that will be punished with the full weight of the law.

"Rest assured that we will handle the results with all transparency and clarity. We will not allow impunity to stain Queretaro."

Aleksander Ceferin is confident FIFA will soon abandon its plans for a biennial World Cup, which he considers "a no-go for everyone in football".

FIFA, led by chief of global football development Arsene Wenger, has been pushing for its showpiece international tournament to take place every two years, rather than every four.

The idea has been met with widespread opposition by others within football, however – particularly in Europe and South America.

And although the world governing body has publicly continued to pursue the change, UEFA president Ceferin says it has now accepted it cannot happen.

"A biennial World Cup is a no-go for everyone in football," Ceferin said at the Financial Times Business of Football Summit on Thursday.

"I am glad FIFA has realised that as well. I had a discussion with FIFA's president about it yesterday.

"We cannot say football on other continents cannot be developed, but we should be aligned, and it should not hurt European and South American federations.

"We have discussions, but as far as I am concerned, a biennial World Cup is off the table. I am sure we will come to a solution with FIFA soon."

The European Clubs' Association (ECA) has elected to suspend its seven Russian member teams with immediate effect.

CSKA Moscow, Krasnodar, Lokomotiv Moscow, FC Rostov, Rubin Kazan, Spartak Moscow and Zenit are the teams who have been suspended.

On Monday, FIFA responded to Russia's invasion of Ukraine by banning all of the country's national teams and club teams from their competitions. Russian clubs, similarly, have been banned from UEFA tournaments. St Petersburg had already been stripped of this season's Champions League final.

Now the ECA has followed suit, with the seven clubs ceasing to have any involvement with the organisation until further notice.

A statement released by the ECA following a meeting held at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Monday read: "Over the past week, ECA has acted swiftly and firmly in both endorsing and participating in the decisions of UEFA to suspend all Russian clubs from participating in UEFA competitions, together with UEFA's decision to end its commercial partnership with Gazprom.

"ECA also strongly endorsed the decision of UEFA's executive committee to move the Champions League final.

"In addition, today, the executive board specifically resolved that all Russian members will cease to be involved in ECA activities with immediate effect until further notice."

The Russian Football Union (RFU) has responded to the ban of Russian teams by FIFA and UEFA, saying it "categorically disagrees with" and could yet challenge the decision.

The two governing bodies have suspended Russian teams from club and international competitions until further notice, denying them entry to the 2022 World Cup and Women's Euro 2022.

Spartak Moscow will be removed from the Europa League, where they had been set to face RB Leipzig in the last 16.

The sanctions were imposed on Russia on Monday following Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine last week.

A subsequent statement from the RFU suggested it could investigate avenues for an appeal "in accordance with international sports law".

It read: "The Russian Football Union categorically disagrees with the decision of FIFA and UEFA to suspend all Russian teams from participating in international matches for an indefinite period.

"We believe that this decision is contrary to the norms and principles of international competitions, as well as to the sporting spirit.

"It is obviously discriminatory in nature and harms a huge number of athletes, coaches, employees of clubs and national teams, and most importantly, millions of Russian and foreign fans, whose interests international sports organisations should primarily protect.

"Such actions divide the world sports community, which has always adhered to the principles of equality, mutual respect and independence from politics.

"We reserve the right to challenge the decision of FIFA and UEFA in accordance with international sports law."

FIFA and UEFA have banned Russian teams from club and international competitions, denying them entry to the 2022 World Cup and Women's Euro 2022.

The decision means Spartak Moscow will be removed from the Europa League last 16, where they were due to face RB Leipzig.

UEFA has also ended its relationship with Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy giant that was a major sponsor of the Champions League.

A joint statement from FIFA and UEFA read: "Football is fully united here and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine.

"Both presidents [Gianni Infantino and Aleksander Ceferin] hope that the situation in Ukraine will improve significantly and rapidly so that football can again be a vector for unity and peace amongst people."

The sporting world has called for sanctions to be imposed on Russia following Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine last week.

Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic – Russia's World Cup play-off opponents – all announced an intention to boycott their fixtures, although FIFA's initial sanctions allowed the Russian Football Union to put forward a team playing under a different name and flag in a neutral location.

But this FIFA decision was widely criticised, including by players' union FIFPro, which wanted more than "the lightest of sanctions" and said Russia's continued involvement in international competition was "not a possibility".

That was a view shared on Monday by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which said Russian and Belarusian athletes should be excluded from sporting events to "protect the integrity of global sports competitions".

FIFA subsequently changed its stance in a joint-announcement with UEFA, ruling Russia – hosts of the 2018 World Cup – out of tournaments including this year's two showpiece events in Qatar and England.

Russia were set to face Poland and then either Sweden or the Czech Republic in World Cup qualifying, while they had already reached the Women's Euros, drawn into a group with Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

FIFA and UEFA have banned Russian teams from club and international competitions, denying them entry to the 2022 World Cup and Women's Euro 2022.

The United States on Monday joined the growing number of nations to refuse to line up against Russia at any level of football.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine last Thursday has led to widespread condemnation across the globe, and the world of sport has also responded strongly.

In football, UEFA stripped St Petersburg of this season's Champions League final and ordered any Russian teams featuring in their club competitions to play their home matches at neutral venues.

Over the weekend, the football associations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic – who were drawn in the same play-off pathway as Russia in next month's World Cup qualifiers – insisted they would not play against the Russian team, while the English FA also stated they would boycott any upcoming matches against Russia at any level.

On Sunday, FIFA announced Russia would have to play all matches under a neutral banner, at neutral venues behind closed doors, without their flag being displayed or their anthem played, although the decision was criticised as it stopped short of a ban on the national team.

The pressure on FIFA to hand out stricter punishment grew further on Monday, as the United States Soccer Federation confirmed it would not play against Russia in a strong statement.

"The U.S. Soccer Federation stands united with the people of Ukraine and is unequivocal in our denunciation of the heinous and inhumane invasion by Russia," the statement read. 

"We will neither tarnish our global name, or dishonour Ukraine, by taking the same field as Russia, no matter the level of competition or circumstance, until freedom and peace have been restored."

Earlier on Monday, the International Olympic Committee said athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus, whose government has abetted the Ukraine invasion through military access, should not be allowed to take part in any international sporting competition.

Athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus should be prevented from taking part in all international sporting competitions, the International Olympic Committee said.

In a statement issued on Monday, the IOC's executive board accused the governments of Russia and Belarus of a "breach of the Olympic Truce" following the attack on Ukraine.

Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine last Thursday, with neighbouring Belarus effectively used as a staging post for Russian military.

The IOC accepted athletes from both countries did not deserve to be punished simply for the actions of their governments. However, because the war in Ukraine prevents many Ukrainians from taking part in sporting events, the IOC said they were left with "a dilemma which cannot be solved".

It added: "The IOC EB has therefore today carefully considered the situation and, with a heavy heart, issued the following resolution:

"In order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants, the IOC EB recommends that International Sports Federations and sports event organisers not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions.

"Wherever this is not possible on short notice for organisational or legal reasons, the IOC EB strongly urges International Sports Federations and organisers of sports events worldwide to do everything in their power to ensure that no athlete or sports official from Russia or Belarus be allowed to take part under the name of Russia or Belarus. Russian or Belarusian nationals, be it as individuals or teams, should be accepted only as neutral athletes or neutral teams. No national symbols, colours, flags or anthems should be displayed."

The IOC's announcement is expected to hasten a decision from FIFA over whether Russia will be allowed to compete in the World Cup play-offs in March.

Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic all declared they would not play against Russia due to the Ukraine conflict, but world football's governing body initially chose only to ban the country's anthem and flag from matches and order them to play as the Football Union of Russia (RFU).

Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev was confirmed as the new leader of the ATP world rankings on Monday, becoming the first man since Andy Roddick in 2004 to become world number one other than Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray.

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