The Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) has named a majority locally based squad for the country’s upcoming three-game mini tournament in Austria.

The football competition, which will take place at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion, has been put on by Qatar as part of their preparations for the FIFA World Cup later this year.

In addition to Qatar, the Reggae will be joined at the tournament by Morocco and African nation Ghana, who will also be making an appearance in Qatar for the global football showpiece.

 Of the 27 players named in the Jamaica squad, 20 ply their trade in the country’s local league.  The exceptions are experienced defender Adrian Mariappa who will join from Australia’s McArthur FC, Jevani Brown who represents EFL League One club Exeter City, Oquassa Chong (Esbjerb fb), Venton Evans (Greenville Triumph) Damani Osei                    
(Santa Clara), Jourdain Fletcher (Gokulam Kerala) and Maliek Howell (University of Memphis).

The Reggae Boyz will tackle Ghana on August 20, followed by matches against Morocco on the 23rd and Qatar on the 26th.  The team will be coached by Merron Gordon who will be assisted by Vassell Reynolds.

  

Full squad

Kemar Foster         Waterhouse FC

Amal Knight            Harbour View FC

Eric Edwards               Arnett Gardens FC

Colorado Murray      Harbour View FC

Trayvone Reid           Harbour View FC

Ricardo Thomas        Waterhouse FC

Ky-Mani Campbell        Waterhouse FC

Richard King                 Cavalier SC

Denardo Thomas         Waterhouse FC

Demario Phillips               Dunbeholden FC

Fabion McCarthy         Dunbeholden FC

Nickoy Christian             Dunbeholden FC

Ramone Howell             Waterhouse FC

Ronaldo Webster            Cavalier SC

Jourdain Fletcher             Gokulam Kerala

Maliek Howell               University of Memphis

Earl Simpson                  Arnett Gardens FC

Odane Pennycooke       Tivoli Gardens FC

Tarick Ximines                Mount Pleasant FC

Alwayne Harvey           Mount Pleasant FC

Adrian Marriapa.             McAuthur FC

Damani Osei.                     Santa Clara Broncos         

Shamari Dyer                      Harbour View           

Oquassa Chong                    Esbjerb fb

Venton Evans                           Greenville Triumph                 

Jevani Brown                          Exeter City

Nicholas Hamilton               Harbour View FC

The European domestic season is now back up and running, meaning we are officially into a World Cup campaign.

For some players, the main focus over the next few months will be remaining fit with the hope of entering Qatar 2022 in peak condition for their respective nations.

For others, the first part of the 2022-23 season will provide an opportunity to play themselves into contention for a squad place ahead of the biggest tournament of them all.

That includes an array of talented stars who have yet to represent their countries at senior level, but who could be given the chance to showcase their talent on the global stage.

With the big kick-off now just 100 days away, Stats Perform has identified five uncapped players who still have an outside shot of glory in Qatar.


Gleison Bremer (Brazil) – 25, centre-back, Juventus

If Bremer was not on the radar of Brazil head coach Tite ahead of the 2021-22 season, the 25-year-old certainly will be now. He ranked first among Serie A defenders last term for duels contested (451) and also led the way for headed clearances (75), showing that he can be relied upon at the back.

Indeed, Bremer's form last time out led to Juventus splashing out a reported €50million to sign him from Torino during the close season. Brazil must be quick, though, as the Italian top-flight's best defender last season is also eligible to represent the Azzurri.

 

Luis Maximiano (Portugal) – 23, goalkeeper, Lazio

Goalkeeper Maximiano is another who moved to a club of bigger stature just a few months out from the World Cup beginning after swapping relegated Granada, where he impressed in his only campaign, for Serie A side Lazio. The 23-year-old certainly had a chance to showcase his shot-stopping abilities last season, with his 127 saves the most of any keeper in LaLiga, and the fifth-most of anyone in Europe's top five leagues.

Following the departure of long-serving Thomas Strakosha, Maximiano will be installed as first choice at Stadio Olimpico, where Portugal boss Fernando Santos may make a visit or two in the coming months.



Sven Botman (Netherlands) – 22, centre-back, Newcastle United

Despite catching the eye in Ligue 1 with Lille, particularly in 2020-21 when starting 37 of the 38 matches played in their stunning title-winning campaign, Botman has remained on the periphery of the Netherlands squad. He has been a regular for the Oranje at Under-21 level, but after joining Newcastle in a £31.8m (€37m) transfer last month, he is surely now in serious consideration for a place in the senior squad.

Having led the way among Lille players last time out per 90 minutes for successful passes (53.4), blocks (0.84) and headed clearances (2.2), the Dutchman will hope to hit the ground running in another new league.

 

Benjamin Bourigeaud (France) – 28, attacking midfielder, Rennes

Reigning world champions France are blessed with world-class talent right across the pitch, but could there be room for a wild card in the form of Bourigeaud? The versatile attacking midfielder can play in a number of positions, though was predominantly used out on the right in what was a career-best season last time out in Ligue 1.

While France are hardly crying out for another player to slot into the final third, Bourigeaud's 23 direct goal involvements for Rennes last season is a tally bettered by only four others, while his David Beckham-esque deliveries from wide can provide something a little different for Didier Deschamps' men.

 

Inaki Williams (Ghana) – 28, forward, Athletic Bilbao

Ghana's squad has been completely transformed since booking their place in Qatar, having persuaded six players to switch allegiance and represent them at the World Cup. Patric Pfeiffer, Stephen Ambrosius and Ransford-Yeboah Konigsdorffer are all available for selection, as are Inaki Williams, Tariq Lamptey and Mohammed Salisu.

Each of those players will enhance Otto Addo's squad, with Williams – capped once by Spain in a friendly – possibly a game-changing option in attack. He is someone who can be replied upon, too, having appeared in each of Athletic's past 233 LaLiga matches, a run spanning back to April 2016. 

Jamaica’s senior men's football team, the Reggae Boyz, is set to play Morocco, Qatar and Ghana in a four-team tournament to run from August 20-26, 2022.

Athletic Club's Inaki Williams announced he will opt to represent Ghana in international football on Tuesday, having previously played for Spain.

Born in Bilbao to Ghanaian parents, Williams has made one appearance for La Roja at senior international level but in a friendly, coming on as a substitute against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2016.

Also part of Spain's run to the Under-21 Euro 2017 final, Williams' ability to switch allegiance falls under FIFA's eligibility rules change of 2003, when Tim Cahill opted to play for Australia after representing Western Samoa at junior level.

Posting on social media, the 28-year-old striker believes it is an opportunity to cultivate a deeper connection to his origins.

"Every step we take forward has its own meaning - a glance into the future which leaves a trace itself," he said. "A legacy. My parents have raised me with values based on humility, respect and love.

"That's why I feel the moment has come for me to find my origins within myself and with Africa and Ghana which means so much to me and my family."

At club level, Williams holds the LaLiga record for consecutive appearances at 233 games, after breaking the previous mark of 202 in October.

Ghana Football Association president Kurt Okraku also tweeted Tariq Lamptey, Stephan Ambrosius, Patric Pfeiffer and Ransford Yeboah are all set to confirm their allegiance to the Black Stars.

All five diaspora members could bolster Ghana's prospects at this year's World Cup, where they have been grouped with Portugal, Uruguay and South Korea.

Brighton and Hove Albion right-back Tariq Lamptey is "considering" playing for Ghana instead of England at international level, according to England Under-21 manager Lee Carsley.

Former Brighton boss Chris Hughton was appointed technical director of the Ghana national team in February, and is reported to have proposed that Lamptey declare for the Black Stars ahead of the World Cup later this year.

The 21-year-old has made two appearances for England's U21 team, but is yet to feature at senior level.

Lamptey has struggled with injuries this season, making only 32 appearances for Brighton (18 starts) in all competitions, and was not named in either Gareth Southgate's latest senior Three Lions squad, or Carsley's U21 squad for upcoming games.

"There's an issue over his dual nationality," Carsley said, as reported by The Athletic. "He's had an approach. It’s something he’s considering at the minute.

"He's asked to be left out of the squad for a bit of head space. He's not switched, it’s not cemented or anything like that. But he's had an approach. We have to respect that.

"We've made it clear how important we see him to us. I know the seniors have as well. It's not something that we've given up on. Tariq is fully aware of how important we see him.

"To be fair, I have rang him every day. I probably shouldn't have, I probably pushed him. You can only make it clear so many times.

"I wouldn't say we've done as much as we can, but he knows where we stand with him. I think we have to respect now that he's got a decision to make. Not only with himself, but with his family."

Ghana face Madagascar and Central African Republic next month in Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, with Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah also rumoured to be someone who could declare for them soon.

Meanwhile, Nketiah's club team-mate Emile Smith-Rowe was named in Carsley's squad for the UEFA Under-21 Championship qualifiers, despite having played for the senior team. 

FIFA have ordered the Senegalese Football Federation to play a competitive match behind closed doors and fined them $180,000 after a series of incidents in March's World Cup qualifier against Egypt, including the use of laser pens to target Liverpool star Mohamed Salah.

After Egypt and Senegal each claimed 1-0 home wins in their two-legged play-off for World Cup qualification, Salah was targeted by a number of laser pens as he missed his penalty in the decisive shoot-out in Dakar, which Senegal went on to win.

Egypt lodged a complaint after their defeat, which came little over a month after the Pharaohs had lost the Africa Cup of Nations final on penalties to the same opponents, also claiming Salah was subject to racist abuse and their team bus targeted by missiles before the game.

Just as he did in February's Africa Cup of Nations final, Salah's Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane netted the winning spot-kick to hand Senegal a place at the Qatar World Cup.

Now, FIFA's disciplinary committee has punished the African champions for a series of offences, including a "failure to implement existing safety rules and failure to ensure that law and order are maintained in the stadium."

Senegal have also been punished for an "invasion of the field of play, throwing of objects, lighting of fireworks, use of laser pointers and use of objects to transmit a message that is not appropriate for a sports event."

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Football Federation have also been ordered to play a match behind closed doors, and received a fine of $154,000, after a pitch invasion that followed their away-goals elimination against Ghana in Abuja.

Senegal will be making their third appearance at the FIFA World Cup later this year, and will kick the tournament off when they face the Netherlands in Group A on November 21 – the first time since 1954 where the tournament's opening match doesn’t involve either the hosts or the defending champions.

We know most of the teams and now we know the majority of the games after the draw for the 2022 World Cup was made in Doha on Friday.

The full line-up of teams is still to be determined and the locations and times for each fixture are also to be confirmed, but what we do know is that there will be some extremely intriguing matches in the group stage in November when proceedings get under way in Qatar.

Tournament debutants, check. Cinderella stories, check. A mouth-watering clash between European heavyweights, check. A game to make England fans extremely anxious, oh you better believe that's a check.

Yes, this is a group stage that appears to have everything and, while there is plenty of time for opinions of these teams to change, here Stats Perform takes you through a look at some of the best games delivered by this year's draw.

Qatar v Ecuador (November 21)

Over 8,000 miles separate Doha and Quito, but both cities figure to be transfixed by the World Cup opener, in which the hosts will make their debut.

Qatar have been dealt a difficult hand in Group A, having also been pitted against three-time finalists the Netherlands and African champions Senegal.

First up, though, is a meeting with an Ecuador side that came through the arduous challenge of CONMEBOL qualifying with 27 goals to their name, their highest tally in a single edition.

Qatar do have recent tournament pedigree, however, impressively beating Japan 3-1 in the final of the 2019 Asian Cup, with the goal they conceded the only time their net was breached in the entire tournament.

Yet their performance in the Asian Cup that same year did not inspire much confidence in them beating a South American nation. Qatar were knocked out in the group stage with just one point to their name when they appeared in the Copa America.

Belgium v Canada (November 23)

Canada face a challenging start to their first World Cup finals appearance since 1986, a duel with the side second behind Brazil in the FIFA world rankings their immediate reward for a dream run through CONCACAF qualifying.

Belgium should not lack motivation, with Qatar realistically marking the last chance for their 'golden generation' to win a major tournament. Their performance in the group stage across the last 28 years suggests a shock here is unlikely. Since losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in 1994, the Red Devils are unbeaten in 12 group stage matches.

But Canada can afford to be full of belief following a remarkable qualifying run in which they scored 23 goals and conceded just seven in the final round.

Regardless of how they perform, English coach John Herdman will make history, as he is set to become the first person to manage in both the men's and women's World Cup.

England v United States (November 25)

Everybody loves a trilogy. Unless you're Rob Green. England and the United States have met twice in the World Cup, and the Three Lions have not won either of those games.

There was a famous defeat to the USA as England crashed out in the group stage in their first appearance in the finals in 1950.

Acquaintances were renewed 60 years later, with the USA claiming a point after Green spilled Clint Dempsey's long-range effort to cancel out Steven Gerrard's early opener.

England, having lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties to Italy and gone unbeaten in 22 matches – conceding only three goals in qualifying – will be the heavy favourites once again. However, a USA side that boasts the likes of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie have the talent in their ranks to spring a surprise.

Argentina v Mexico (November 26)

Lionel Messi and La Albiceleste will have a couple of tricky hurdles to negotiate in the group stage, this meeting with El Tri coming before a Group C finale against Robert Lewandowski and Poland.

Mexico boast a superb record when it comes to getting through the group stage, having done so in each of their last eight appearances at the finals.

Facing the prolific talents of Lewandowski and Messi, this is a group that threatens to put that streak in jeopardy.

The Mexico defence kept eight clean sheets in CONCACAF qualifying, and such resolute play at the back will likely be needed for them to defy Messi and Co.

That task has frequently proven beyond Mexico, who have lost each of their three World Cup meetings with Argentina.

Hoping to mastermind a shock will be a face familiar to Messi and his team-mates, with former Barcelona and Argentina coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino set to lead Mexico into a game against his home country.

Spain vs Germany (November 27)

This is comfortably the headline act as two of the previous three World Cup winners square off knowing victory could be crucial, with the side that finishes second in Group E potentially set to face Belgium, presuming they win Group F as most would expect, in the last 16.

Germany will hope the early signs of progress under Hansi Flick are realised in Qatar, having gone unbeaten in each of their nine games (including friendlies) since he took over from Joachim Low.

Die Mannschaft have conceded just three goals in that run, but a meeting with a Spain side that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and is filled with emerging young talent promises to be difficult in the extreme.

La Roja reached the final of the UEFA Nations League, which they lost 2-1 to France, with that defeat and a qualifying loss to Sweden the only blips for Luis Enrique's side since their shoot-out agony at the hands of Italy.

Germany and Spain have met four times in the World Cup finals, with the former prevailing in 1966 and 1982. They played out a draw in the group stage in 1994, but Spain claimed a 1-0 victory in 2010 en route to winning the trophy for the first time in their history. Flick was an assistant to Low on Germany's coaching staff during that tournament.

Ghana v Uruguay (December 2)

The appetite for revenge will be high among fans of the Black Stars, who get another crack at Luis Suarez's Uruguay over 12 years on from their controversial 2010 exit at the quarter-final stage.

Suarez gladly took on the role of villain in a remarkable end to extra time in that match, committing a deliberate handball to prevent Dominic Adiyiah's header from giving Ghana a 2-1 lead late into the additional half hour.

The then-Ajax striker was sent off, but Asamoah Gyan skied the subsequent penalty, with Suarez seen enthusiastically celebrating the miss in the tunnel.

Uruguay then held their nerve to prevail in the shoot-out and prevent Ghana from becoming the first African team to reach the semi-finals.

Now, in a group that also features Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and Son Heung-min and South Korea, Ghana could have the chance to send Uruguay home early in the final round of group stage fixtures.

This one promises to be tasty.

Qatar 2022 is fast approaching and the anticipation will surely be at its most intense so far when Friday's draw for the group stage is completed.

The Doha Exhibition and Convention Center plays host to the milestone event, which will see eight groups drawn from pots as the eventual storylines of the World Cup begin to unfurl.

Among the narratives that will start being mapped out on Friday is France's title defence, with Les Bleus hoping to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their World Cup crown.

Ahead of the draw, Stats Perform provides a lowdown of all the key information…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, the draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section ahead of Mexico and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

It's nearly four years since Didier Deschamps became only the third man to win the World Cup as a player and coach, as he guided France to their second success on football's grandest stage.

The target now for Les Bleus is to become the first nation since Brazil in 1962 to retain their crown, and that journey begins on Friday with the draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022.

Four years is a long time to wait for anything, but the draw for the World Cup is always a milestone event that sees the anticipation taken up a notch.

The eyes of the football world will be on the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, where the eight groups will be drawn and potential routes to December's finale can start being plotted.

But there is a little more to the draw than that…

 

How will the draw work?

Most of us have seen a draw and understand the general premise, but there's a lot of detail to consider before we end up with our completed group stage.

For starters, Friday's draw (19:00 local time) will only include 29 qualified teams, with the other three spots to consist of a couple of intercontinental play-off slot placeholders and one UEFA play-off slot placeholder, with those nations to be determined later in the year.

The qualified teams will be sorted into four pots of eight, with their FIFA world ranking determining which they enter – joining Qatar in pot one will be the top seven teams, while the nations ranked eight-15 will be in pot 2, and so on. The three play-off slot placeholders will be drawn from pot four.

There will also be eight pots representing the groups, A to H. Each group pot contains four balls with position numbers, ranging from one to four, which correspond to the teams' respective starting position in the tables and subsequently impact their fixture schedule.

Team pot one will be the first to empty, with Qatar automatically drawn into slot A1. The other sides from pot one will go straight into position one of the remaining groups.

From then on, a ball is drawn from a team pot and followed by one from a group pot, determining that team's position – for example, the second nation drawn into Group A could be placed in slot A4. The process continues until each team pot is emptied, with pot four the last to be drawn.

Where possible, no group will contain more than one team from the same qualification zone, with the exception of Europe – so anyone hoping for an encounter like Brazil v Uruguay will have to wait for the knockout stage.

Thursday's release of the latest world rankings confirmed the make-up of the respective pots, so, without any further ado, let's take a look through them…

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

Cameroon
Canada
Ecuador
Saudi Arabia
Ghana
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 1 
Intercontinental play-off placeholder 2
UEFA play-off placeholder

Luck of the draw!

It goes without saying that, theoretically, being in pot one means you would be favourites to win your group. But that's the beauty of football; practically anything can happen once you're on the pitch.

If we look back to the last World Cup four years ago, defending champions Germany were top of the FIFA rankings and in pot one, but then failed to get through the group stage for the first time ever.

 

But just as being in a higher pot is no guarantee of going deep into the tournament, who's to say how eventual 2018 champions France would have fared had they been in pot two?

Les Bleus were ranked seventh at the time so squeezed into pot one ahead of Spain. While that arguably gave them a trickier route to the final in the knockout phase, perhaps the tests posed by Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium were what kept them sharp all the way to the end?

This time around, Spain do appear in pot one. Portugal do as well, with Fernando Santos' men benefiting in that regard from European champions Italy's shock absence.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful teams in pot two. The Netherlands and Germany are undoubtedly the pick of the bunch there, both of whom will provide a stern test for any of the teams in pot one. Brazil v Die Mannschaft in the group stage, anyone?

There's a chance we could even see a repeat of the 2018 final in the group stage, with Croatia (pot two) able to come up against France in the opening round, while an England v United States showdown would surely capture the imagination of fans on both sides of 'the pond'.

We can expect to see plenty of quality in pot three as well, especially with Serbia, Robert Lewandowski's Poland and African champions Senegal present.

Among those in pot four are Canada. They may only be competing in their second World Cup and first since 1986, but John Herdman's team have won plenty of admirers en route to winning the CONCACAF qualifying section and reaching a record high of 33rd in the rankings.

 

Excitement, expectations and exoduses as Ronaldo and Messi look likely to bow out

Whether watching football on TV or from the stands, it can often be easy to forget that our heroes are just ordinary people as well. They are individuals who in all likelihood had the same hopes and dreams as many of us as children.

The glitz and glamour surrounding professional football can lead us to put footballers on a pedestal, but behind the sport's shiny facade, our teams are made up of – and coached by – people who are just as obsessed with the idea of the World Cup as anyone else.

England manager Gareth Southgate encapsulated the excitement earlier this week, as he said: "[The World Cup evokes] a different sort of feeling, but it's still a tournament we all watched as kids, we all filled our wallcharts out, we all hoped and followed when England were there that we would do well. And it's a unique chance to make history, so that of course is massively exciting."

Of course, that innocent excitement harbours expectation and hope for many, for others there will be a feeling of responsibility to amend the wrongs of the past.

This time around, that's arguably truest when looking at Germany, with Manuel Neuer fully appreciating he may not get another opportunity to put things right.

"I know that I will probably not get to play many more World Cups, so after crashing out in 2018 in Russia and our exit against England [at Euro 2020], it's important that we show a new version of ourselves and visualise success," the experienced goalkeeper said.

That finality Neuer alluded to is another key aspect of the World Cup. Given the four-year cycle of the tournament, every time we bid a fond farewell to a few greats of the game who opt to take advantage of the cyclical nature and end their international careers.

 

This time it looks as though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – who for so long battled out their own personal 'Greatest of All-Time' rivalry – may be among those appearing on the World Cup stage for the last time.

"Goal achieved, we're at the Qatar World Cup. We're in our rightful place!" Ronaldo's Instagram post after Portugal's play-off success focused on the positive, but at 37, Qatar 2022 will surely be his final appearance at the tournament.

As for Messi, he said last week: "I don't know, the truth is I don't know. Let's hope [Argentina's preparations] go the best way possible. But for sure after the World Cup many things will change."

Exoduses after major international tournaments are common as teams reset or rebuild, but given what Messi and Ronaldo have represented on the pitch and the fact they've appeared at each of the previous four World Cups, their appearances at Qatar 2022 need to be savoured.

It all begins with Friday's draw, when narratives and talking points that'll live longer than any of us will start to take shape with the unscrewing of a few shiny plastic balls.

Furious Nigeria supporters stormed the pitch at the National Stadium in Lagos after rivals Ghana sealed a World Cup spot at the expense of the Super Eagles.

Arsenal's Thomas Partey opened the scoring in the 10th minute for Ghana, before William Troost-Ekong levelled from the penalty spot for the hosts midway through the first half.

Nigeria could not find a crucial second goal, however, with Otto Addo's Ghana side holding on for the 1-1 draw, to progress to Qatar 2022 via away goals after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.

The result sparked ugly scenes inside the stadium, with videos on social media showing supporters leaving their seats and smashing equipment at the side of the pitch.

There was heartbreak for Mohamed Salah and Egypt after they suffered another dramatic penalty shoot-out defeat to Senegal.

Hosts Senegan recovered from a 1-0 first-leg deficit to beat Egypt by the same margin at the Abdoulaye Wade Stadium, before Salah, with dozens of laser pens seemingly pointing at his face, fired Egypt's first penalty of the shoot-out over the bar.

Mostafa Mohamed later failed with the visitors' fourth kick, allowing Salah’s Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane to slam his penalty past Mohamed El Shenawy and seal Senegal's progress, in a repeat of February's Africa Cup of Nations final triumph.

"We try our best but today was not enough," he wrote. "To all my players and my staff, [I give] my recognition and humble thank you.

"You will be always in my heart. It was my privilege to work and be helped by such dedicated and capable professionals and wonderful friends."

There was stunning late drama in Bilda as Karl Toko Ekambi scored late in extra time to seal a 2-1 win for visitors Cameroon against Algeria, the Indomitable Lions progressing to Qatar via away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw.

Algeria thought they had sealed a place at the World Cup when Ahmed Touba cancelled out Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting's opener with two minutes remaining in extra time, but there was just enough time left for Ekambi to seal the most dramatic of victories.

Morocco also booked their place in Friday's World Cup draw with an emphatic 4-1 win over Democratic Republic of Congo. A brace from Azzedine Ounahi, as well as goals from Tarik Tissoudali and Achraf Hakimi, sealed a 5-2 aggregate win over DR Congo, who scored a late consolation through Ben Malango.

Meanwhile, a 0-0 draw for Tunisia against Mali was enough to see the former seal their own place in Qatar after they managed a 1-0 win in the first leg.

Ghana were knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations as they suffered a stunning 3-2 defeat to the Comoros.

Victory would have been enough for the Black Stars to progress as one of the best third-placed teams but a double from Ahmed Mogni gave the Comoros their first Africa Cup of Nations win in a Group C encounter that saw captain Andre Ayew sent off for the four-time champions.

The Comoros took a shock lead in the fourth minute as a quick break was finished off by El Fardou Ben Nabouhane with a confident strike into the bottom-right corner.

Ghana's problems deepened when Ayew was shown red as they pressed for an equaliser, the skipper deemed by VAR to have fouled goalkeeper Salim Ben Boina in an effort to prod home a rebound from Kamaldeen Sulemana's shot.

And the advantage of the extra man at the Comoros' disposal eventually told just after the hour as haphazard goalkeeping from Jojo Wollacott presented Mogni with the chance to double their advantage courtesy of an assured finish.

Richmond Boakye provided an instant response when he steered home a header from a right-wing corner and the turnaround looked to be on when Alexander Djiku tapped in a flick-on as the Comoros' defence failed to deal with the same set-piece with 13 minutes remaining.

A decisive fifth goal did arrive, but it was Mogni who had the final say as he was presented with a simple finish after excellent work down the right from Bendjaloud Youssouf to keep the minnows' hopes of qualification for the knockouts alive and condemn Ghana to a humiliating exit.

Three of the pre-tournament Africa Cup of Nations favourites conclude their group stage fixtures on Tuesday, though one of them is in a tricky situation.

Senegal are on track to qualify from Group B, while Morocco have so far handled the potentially difficult Group C rather well – the same cannot be said for Ghana.

Luckily for the Black Stars, they have arguably – on paper at least – their easiest game of the group stage to look forward to as they bid to avoid falling at the first hurdle for only the second time this century.

Malawi v Senegal (16:00 GMT)

Just by beating Zimbabwe 2-1 thanks to a brace from the excellent Gabadinho Mhango, Malawi have arguably already compounded expectations at this year's tournament.

That was only their second ever win at the AFCON and it ensured they go into Tuesday with a real chance of qualification, either automatically or as one of the four best third-placed teams.

But Senegal still have a lot to play for themselves, with Aliou Cisse's men tied on four points with Guinea.

While that could be enough to take them through anyway, failing to top this group will not be a good look for the team many considered favourites to lift the trophy.

One to watch: Gabadinho Mhango (Malawi)

While Senegal undoubtedly possess the stronger squad, Orlando Pirates striker Mhango really caught the eye last time out with a couple of well-taken goals. One more will make him Malawi's all-time top scorer in the AFCON.

 

Zimbabwe v Guinea (16:00 GMT)

A wonderful opportunity awaits Guinea here, with the Syli Nationale knowing they will win the group as long as they better Senegal's result.

Their 0-0 draw with the Teranga Lions was a decent outcome and means they are one of just three teams still to concede a goal – though goalkeeper Aly Keita's tournament-best record of 2.4 goals prevented may have something to do with that.

They face a Zimbabwe side with only pride to play for having lost each of their first two games, though the omens are not great for Guinea: the Warriors' only previous AFCON wins have been in their final group matches (in 2004 and 2006).

 

One to watch: Mohamed Bayo (Guinea)

Despite their chances being worth 2.98 in terms of expected goals (xG), Guinea have only netted once. That 1.98 non-penalty xG underperformance is the second-worst at the tournament. Bayo arrived in Cameroon in good form – they will hope he can inspire an improvement where it matters most.

 

Gabon v Morocco (19:00 GMT)

As one of only three teams to win both of their first two games this year, Morocco are already assured of a place in the next round – they just need to seal top spot now.

The Atlas Lions are already on their longest unbeaten run at the AFCON (six matches) since going 11 without defeat in the 1970s, and they also boast the best xG (5.3) and xGA (0.5) records of the teams to play twice, evidence of how effective they have been at both ends of the pitch.

But Gabon, who confirmed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina have returned to their clubs for medical reasons, are aiming to go unbeaten in a second success group stage campaign for the first time, with a point likely good enough to send them through.

One to watch: Youssef En-Nesyri (Morocco)

It has been a frustrating season so far for Sevilla striker En-Nesyri, who has missed prolonged periods through injury and then saw his penalty saved against Comoros. His 25-minute cameo then was his first appearance in the tournament. With qualification already assured, they might opt to build up his fitness for the knockouts with a start against Gabon.

 

Ghana v Comoros (19:00 GMT)

Ghana were held to a 1-1 draw by Gabon last time out, a match that was marred by ugly scenes at full-time after a late equaliser denied them victory. It culminated in a red card for Benjamin Tetteh after he punched an opponent in the face.

Having also lost to Morocco on matchday one, Ghana now need a win to have any hope of progressing – even then, it may not be enough.

If Ghana do not win, it will be the first time they have ever failed to win a single group game in 22 appearances at the tournament.

It would also be their first failure to get out of the group since 2006. Much is at stake.

One to watch: Andre Ayew (Ghana)

While Ghana have some very talented young players in their squad, their qualification hopes are looking a little desperate – they need their experienced stars to take the lead here. Andre Ayew and his brother Jordan are obviously the focus here, given that nine (70 per cent) of Ghana's previous 13 AFCON goals have been scored by the siblings (Andre is on five, Jordan on four).

 

Gabon gave themselves a great chance of making the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations thanks to Jim Allevinah's 88th-minute strike, which sealed a 1-1 draw with Ghana.

Once again shorn of talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who missed out due to "cardiac lesions" after contracting COVID-19 last week, the Panthers fought back on Friday.

Andre Ayew had lashed four-time AFCON champions Ghana ahead in the 18th minute with a powerful shot on the turn from just outside Gabon's area.

It was a brilliant effort from the Black Stars' captain, who according to Opta had only a five per cent chance of converting the opportunity, but the venom on his shot got the better of Gabon goalkeeper Jean Noel Amonome.

Yet it was the only attempt Ghana managed to get on target and they were made to pay late on when a quick free-kick caught their defence cold, with substitute Allevinah drilling in a low finish.

Ayew's angry reaction at full-time resulted in a fracas on the pitch, with the referee then showing a post-match red card to Ghana's Benjamin Tetteh, who punched a Gabon player in the face before seemingly fleeing the scene.

Gabon are on four points in Group C, with leaders Morocco now through. Ghana, meanwhile, must beat Comoros to stand a chance of progressing.

The Africa Cup of Nations group stage continues at pace on Friday, with four matches scheduled to take place.

Senegal, runners-up in 2019, face Guinea in Group B, with both teams having won their opening fixtures. Malawi and Zimbabwe take each other on in the other match in that group.

Meanwhile, Gabon are hoping to have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back for their clash with Ghana in Group C, while Morocco, winners against the Black Stars on matchday one, take on Comoros.

Senegal v Guinea (13:00 GMT)

Senegal and Guinea are meeting for the third time at the Africa Cup of Nations, with the former winning their first two encounters: 2-1 in the 1994 group stages and 3-2 in the 2006 quarter-finals.

In both matches, Guinea opened the scoring before eventually finishing as the losing side, and it is Senegal – led, of course, by Sadio Mane – who will be favourites on Friday, the Liverpool forward's 97th-minute penalty sealing an opening win against Zimbabwe.

Mane's fellow Red Naby Keita is Guinea's star man. He attempted more passes in the opposition half (26) than any of his team-mates in the 1-0 defeat of Malawi last time out and it was his precise ball that led to the only goal of the game.

Keita might have his work cut out against a Senegal midfield that will likely include Paris Saint-Germain's all-action Idrissa Gueye, the towering presence of Crystal Palace's Cheikhou Kouyate and Bayern Munich's versatile full-back Bouna Sarr, who had five attempts and played two key passes in the win over Zimbabwe.

One to watch: Sadio Mane

After his last-gasp winner on Monday, Mane has been directly involved in five of Senegal's past six AFCON goals, scoring four and providing one assist. Since his debut in the competition in January 2015, the former Southampton star has been directly involved in more goals than any other Senegal player.

 

Malawi v Zimbabwe (16:00)

After narrow defeats in their opening matches, Group B's other teams will be looking to bounce back knowing they could draw level with one of the pool's big sides with three points.

That being said, neither team exactly have a strong history in the competition. This will be the first encounter between the nations at an AFCON finals, with Malawi winning just one of their seven matches at the tournament (D1 L5).

Zimbabwe, meanwhile, are winless in their past seven AFCON matches (D2 L5), last claiming a victory in the competition in 2006, against Ghana (2-1).

It could be a case of an easily stoppable force meeting a highly movable object, however, with Malawi having failed to score in four of their past seven AFCON games, while Zimbabwe have never kept a clean sheet in 13 such matches, conceding 28 goals. No team has ever played more games in the competition without once keeping the ball out of their own net.

One to watch: Tino Kadewere (Zimbabwe)

Lyon forward Kadewere had to settle for a place on the bench in the first game, though he came on for the second half and had two attempts, which was bettered by only Knowledge Musona for Zimbabwe. In a squad shy of top-level European experience, Kadewere is undoubtedly the standout talent.

 

Morocco v Comoros (16:00)

After Senegal, Morocco are the second-best-ranked team at AFCON, currently placed 28th in the FIFA's world standings.

The Atlas Lions defeated Ghana in their opening Group C match and head into Friday's meeting with minnows Comoros as huge favourites, with Morocco looking to win their opening two matches at an AFCON in consecutive editions of the tournament, having only won both such games in one of their previous 16 appearances in the competition.

Comoros, who went down 1-0 to Gabon on Monday, will hope to avoid becoming the sixth AFCON debutants this century to lose their opening two matches, after Benin (2004), Botswana (2012), Burundi (2019), Niger (2012) and Zimbabwe (2004).

One to watch: Sofiane Boufal

Former Southampton midfielder Boufal scored an 83rd-minute winner against Ghana. No Moroccan player has netted in successive AFCON matches since Houssine Kharja in 2012.

 

Gabon v Ghana (19:00)

Friday's headline clash sees Gabon take on Ghana, and Aubameyang could well be back after he trained with his side following a negative coronavirus result.

Aubameyang, who has not played for Arsenal since early December and was recently stripped of the club captaincy due to a disciplinary breach, tested positive for COVID-19 upon his arrival for the AFCON, along with Mario Lemina.

Gabon will, however, be without coach Patrice Neveu, who is isolating. They are looking to win successive AFCON games for the first time since a run of three victories in 2012.

Four-time champions Ghana, meanwhile, have won just one of their past five group games (D2 L2), losing more in this run than in their previous 12 such matches combined (W9 D2 L1).

One to watch: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

There is no doubting Aubameyang's quality, even if the 32-year-old has been ostracised at Arsenal recently. Having been out of action for so long, it may take the former Borussia Dortmund star time to get up to speed, though he has the ability to be the difference-maker. 

Gabon coach Patrice Neveu has tested positive for COVID-19 and missed training on Thursday as captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returned from isolation with a rallying call.

Neveu's team started their Africa Cup of Nations campaign with a 1-0 win over Comoros on Monday, but the coach appears certain to be absent for their second game on Friday when Ghana provide the opposition.

The Gabonese Football Federation confirmed Neveu's positive test result and stated training was led by assistant coach Anicet Yala, who himself tested positive on arrival in Cameroon last week.

Arsenal striker Aubameyang and Monaco midfielder Mario Lemina also returned positive results before the tournament began, but both are back on the training pitch and could be involved against Ghana.

Aubameyang said he had been able to train on an exercise bike and treadmill in his hotel room to keep up a basic level of fitness.

"Staying locked up is not easy," he said. "So we're happy to be back in training and in the squad."

Aubameyang contended it was too early to feel in any way serene about Gabon's progress in the competition and insisted he and his team-mates must stay focused as Ghana await them.

"I won't say serene, but it certainly feels good to start the competition with a victory," said Aubameyang, quoted on the Gabon team website. "After that, you shouldn't think that you won the [Cup of Nations] either.

"We are going to play a very tough opponent who want to win the game, so we will have to be serious as we were in the first game and I know that we will have our chances.

"I was already very happy that the guys did the job in the first game, we are all proud of them. Now it's up to me to level up and bring everything I can to the group."

The Cup of Nations was expected to provide welcome respite for Aubameyang after strife at club level.

His Arsenal future has become clouded by uncertainty after he was stripped of the club captaincy and dropped by manager Mikel Arteta following a disciplinary breach.

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