Memphis Depay will not feature in the Netherlands' World Cup opener against Senegal, but coach Louis van Gaal remains optimistic for the tournament, believing this squad to be capable of improving on a third-placed finish at Brazil 2014.

Depay had been a doubt for Monday's match in Doha due to a hamstring injury that has limited him to only two LaLiga appearances at Barcelona this season.

Oranje coach Van Gaal, speaking to the media on Sunday, confirmed the forward would miss out against Senegal, suggesting his "idea of the match" centred around how the two teams would fare without their respective stars. Senegal's Sadio Mane is out of the entire tournament.

Depay was involved in more goals in European qualifying for Qatar 2022 than any other player, scoring 12 and assisting a further six in just 10 matches.

Van Gaal said: "Mane can break open a match, and I would say Senegal will really miss him. But the same applies to us. We are really missing our top scorer and the king of the assists."

However, the Netherlands boss had been aware a swift return was unlikely for Depay, adding: "We knew before the World Cup he had a different programme, a different schedule than the schedule of a player who is preparing for a match."

When he recovers, Depay will be tasked with leading the line for a Dutch side Van Gaal considers superior to his class of 2014 – the last team he took to a tournament in the second of three stints in the role.

The Netherlands reached the semi-finals on that occasion, losing to Argentina on penalties before beating Brazil in the third-place play-off.

Given Van Gaal's high opinion of this group of players and his own considerable experience, he expects results to follow – potentially culminating in a first World Cup triumph.

"I believe in this squad, this group of players," he said. "In 2014, we came third with a squad of lesser quality, I would say. With this group, I expect more.

"It all depends not only on technical skills and tactical skills but also a bit of luck that you score at the right time or that the others don't score.

"I think we could become world champion, but there are squads that are in my view of a higher level than my squad. The thing is how the squad deals with that, and there I think I may be able to benefit from a head start.

"I'm saying we can become world champion. Whether we become world champion is a separate issue, but I'm saying we can."

While Van Gaal would not confirm the identity of his starting goalkeeper, he hinted at Cody Gakpo getting the nod ahead of Davy Klaassen in Depay's absence, and there is no doubt who his captain is.

Van Dijk appeared next to Van Gaal, who said: "I have a wonderful captain next to me. I have worked with so many captains, and he is a truly great captain. That makes things easier."

But neither Van Dijk nor Van Gaal would answer political questions after Gianni Infantino's remarkable opening address the previous day.

"I am no longer going to speak about political issues," the previously outspoken Van Gaal said. "I'm focusing on this coming match.

"I put a full stop after all these issues after we invited the migrants to watch our practice session. I requested all my players also stopped doing that and put a full stop and focus on the match against Senegal."

Most people may assume England's World Cup opener against Iran will be a relatively routine one.

The Three Lions reached the semi-finals in 2018 before making it all the way to the final of last year's rearranged Euro 2020 tournament, and breezed through qualifying for Qatar 2022 with the best goal difference in the group stage of European qualifiers, scoring 39 and conceding only three.

Confidence will be high that Gareth Southgate's team can get going with three points, but a potentially tricky obstacle stands in their way on Monday.

Iran had an impressive qualifying campaign of their own, winning eight of 10 games in the third round of Asian qualifying and conceding just four goals.

They also sit 20th in the latest FIFA rankings, putting them above the likes of Serbia, Morocco and Poland.

Far from ideal as part of their preparations was a change of head coach just two months before the World Cup, with Dragan Skocic surprisingly removed and replaced by Carlos Queiroz to lead Team Melli in Qatar, shortly after he had guided Egypt to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations.

This will be Queiroz's fourth consecutive World Cup as a head coach – the longest ongoing run – and third in a row in charge of Iran after taking over for a second spell.

Iran lost 2-0 to Tunisia in a behind-closed-doors friendly on Wednesday, but Queiroz felt it allowed his team to be better prepared for England.

"Of course, the result is not good," he said. "We don't like to concede goals, we don't like to lose but [there are things] we need to correct.

"We had the best opportunities in the game before the penalty, we missed a few chances to score but the most important is the conclusions that we need to make in order to prepare for England."

Iran are one of 20 teams to have featured at each of the last two World Cups in 2014 and 2018 – of those teams, they have had the fewest shots (47), the fewest shots on target (10) and scored the fewest goals (3) in the group stages across those two tournaments combined.

Meanwhile, England's Eric Dier is not concerned about the high temperatures in Qatar despite the time of year, with the game kicking off at 4pm local time.

"I don't know what kind of impact it will have," he said at a press conference on Saturday. "I've never experienced it before, so it's going to be a first.

"This is normally a tournament which is played in the summer. In Russia [in 2018] it was hot. I wasn't there but during the Euros in England it was hot, so I think we're ready for that and we're playing in the same conditions as our opposition, so it's the same for everyone."

England are the only European team to have reached the semi-finals in each of the last two major tournaments, and will be hoping to start on course for another strong showing at the Khalifa International Stadium.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

England – Harry Kane 

England's captain has understandably been integral to their last two runs in the World Cup and European Championship, winning the golden boot at the last FIFA showpiece in 2018, where five of his six goals in Russia came in the group stage.

Kane was also joint-top scorer in European qualifying for this World Cup (12, level with Memphis Depay), and his shot conversion rate of 36.36 per cent was the highest of any player who scored at least six goals.

Iran – Mehdi Taremi

The consensus seems to be that Sardar Azmoun will be the one for England to keep an eye on, which is fair enough given his 40 goals in 63 games for his country to date, though his lack of goals and game time at club level could cost him sharpness, having scored just once in 22 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen since joining in January.

On the other hand, his international strike partner Taremi has 13 goals in 19 games for Porto this season, including five in the Champions League.

Despite only playing six times, no Iran player was involved in more goals during the third round of Asian World Cup qualifying than Taremi (four goals, two assists).


PREDICTION

Despite Iran probably being stronger than many anticipate, England are still justifiably heavy favourites. 

According to Stats Perform's AI model, the Three Lions have a 72.2 per cent chance of opening with a win, while the draw is rated at 18.1 per cent.

It would be a moment to remember should Iran pull off an upset, but Queiroz's men have just a 9.7 per cent chance of victory.

Cristiano Ronaldo will be "phenomenal" at the World Cup as long as Portugal meet expectations as a collective, according to his team-mate Ruben Neves.

Ronaldo has been at the centre of a media storm over the past week after he took part in an astonishing interview with broadcaster Piers Morgan.

During the one-on-one, Ronaldo was largely scathing of Manchester United, criticising the board, young players and manager, Erik ten Hag.

United confirmed on Thursday they have dealt with the matter, though they did not disclose what punishment had been handed out to Ronaldo.

He was then reported as being ill when absent for Portugal's pre-World Cup friendly with Nigeria on Thursday, but he returned to training two days later.

Despite the hysteria surrounding the 37-year-old, Neves insists Portugal – and Ronaldo – are looking good ahead of their World Cup opener against Ghana on Thursday.

"From what I've seen in training, he's in great shape," Neves told reporters at Portugal's training base.

"[Ronaldo's interview] is not at all a subject that concerns us. We know perfectly well that our collective must work very well to highlight individuals.

"And With Cristiano it's no different. If we're good, we know that Cristiano is going to be phenomenal."

After Ronaldo joined up with the Portugal squad in the wake of his controversial interview, a video of him greeting his United colleague Bruno Fernandes was perceived to depict some hostility from the latter.

The clip turned out to be from a longer video published by the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF), with Fernandes adamant they were sharing a joke that had been misconstrued.

Neves supported this claim, dismissing the idea of controversy entering the dressing room.

"There is no controversy in the locker room," he continued. "It is impossible for us to discuss these controversies since they do not exist in the locker room.

"These are more controversies outside and on social media rather than in the locker room.

"Everything has been said. We are 100 per cent focused on the World Cup. We have a great atmosphere in the team, we are concentrating on that."

France will not call up a replacement for Karim Benzema after the Ballon d'Or winner was ruled out of the World Cup with a thigh injury, head coach Didier Deschamps has confirmed.

Deschamps' side are looking to become the first team to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962, but they have suffered several injury blows ahead of the tournament in Qatar.

Having already seen midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante ruled out, France lost Presnel Kimpembe and Christopher Nkunku after naming their 26-man squad for the competition, but the most severe blow was still to come as Benzema was forced to leave their camp after failing to complete Saturday's training session. 

With Benzema facing three weeks on the sidelines, reports suggested France would decide whether to call up another attacker on Sunday, but Deschamps is content with his existing options. 

"It's obviously a big blow. Karim had done everything, so had we. He was in the session and with an almost innocuous gesture, he felt muscle pain on the other leg," Deschamps told Telefoot.

"The exams unfortunately confirmed too much damage compared to the deadlines that await us. 

"Will he be replaced? No. We have seven to eight attacking players."

Alongside 2018 World Cup winners Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele, France can call upon Kingsley Coman, Randal Kolo Muani and Marcus Thuram as attacking options.

Benzema has endured a frustrating season, missing several of Real Madrid's games after sustaining a knee injury in September before being plagued by muscle fatigue in the build-up to the World Cup.

Deschamps insists France's medical staff should not shoulder the blame for his latest injury, adding: "I know that you are looking for controversy, but everything has been done [for Benzema to be fit].

"It happened in the game, not even on an acceleration or a strike. It can happen, it's never the right time, it's not a relapse. 

"He has a concern on the other side, which prevents him from staying with us. It's never fun, it doesn't make you smile. 

"We had already lost Christopher, but we have a goal, the group knows very well what awaits us. We have a quality group. I am convinced of it, I have confidence in them."

Deschamps offered a more positive update on the fitness of Raphael Varane, saying the Manchester United defender "will be available" for Tuesday's Group D opener against Australia.

Varane had been a doubt for the tournament after suffering a leg injury in the Red Devils' Premier League draw with Chelsea last month, but he completed his first collective training session since meeting up with Les Bleus on Saturday. 

France have been dealt another injury blow as Karim Benzema is out of the World Cup.

Benzema will become the first reigning Ballon d'Or winner to miss a world finals since Allan Simonsen's Denmark failed to qualify for the 1978 tournament.

The 'holders' curse' is now well established – Benzema had been hoping to help France end a sequence of three consecutive defending champions exiting in the first round – but Ballon d'Or victors have been no more fortunate.

In fact, stars entering a World Cup recognised as the world's best player have never gone home with the trophy.

While Alfredo Di Stefano's Spain, like Simonsen's Denmark, did not qualify in 1958, Benzema is the first player to be absent through injury.

But plenty of all-time greats have suffered World Cup heartache at their peak...

Eusebio (1966)

Eusebio lived up to his billing of being the best player in the world at the time by finishing as top scorer in the 1966 World Cup with nine goals. Thanks to the form of their star man, Portugal made quite the impact in their maiden tournament as they eliminated Brazil, who were without the injured Pele, but his penalty against England was not enough as the Selecao suffered semi-final heartbreak. The photo of a crestfallen Eusebio being led off the Wembley pitch remains iconic to this day, with the game being dubbed 'Jogo das Lagrimas' – the Game of Tears.

Roberto Baggio (1994)

After initially struggling to get going at USA 94 in an underwhelming group stage for Italy, Baggio finally came to life and showed why he was the world's best in the knockout rounds. The Juventus star scored late on against Nigeria to take the game to extra time and then netted the winning goal in the additional period to set up a quarter-final with Spain, against whom he also bagged the winner. That hot streak continued with two more goals against Bulgaria in the semis, yet the tournament would ultimately end in heartbreak as he skied the decisive penalty for the Azzurri against Brazil – a miss that he has had to relive over and over since that day.

Ronaldo (1998)

Entering the World Cup as a true global superstar O Fenomeno – The Phenomenon – dealt with the intense pressure by scoring three times in Brazil's run to another final, where hosts France awaited at the Parc des Princes. The showpiece is arguably best remembered more than two decades on for events prior to the match, with Ronaldo being left out of the starting line-up only to be reinstated 45 minutes before kick-off. The tale has been told countless times, though Ronaldo himself confirmed he was left out of the initial XI due to suffering a convulsion. While he won his battle to start, he could not make the impact he would have wanted as France ran out 3-0 winners in Saint-Denis.

Cristiano Ronaldo (2014 & 2018)

On the back of winning his second Champions League trophy, and the first of four with Real Madrid, Ronaldo looked in the mood to fire Portugal to a first World Cup crown. However, to say the tournament did not quite go Ronaldo and Portugal's way would be a huge understatement. The Selecao lost 4-0 to eventual competition winners Germany in their opening match and then required a 95th-minute goal to salvage a 2-2 draw against the United States. A 2-1 win over Ghana in their final match, with Ronaldo at least getting off the mark in that game, failed to prevent Portugal from crashing out in the group stage. Portugal, European champions at the time, only fared marginally better four years later with the world's best player in their ranks as they fell to Uruguay in the first knockout round.

The World Cup in Qatar is finally set to get underway, but there are a number of major players who will be watching along with the fans back home.

An unfortunate reality about the tournament is there will always be significant absences, either through a nation's failure to qualify or due to injury.

It is the latter that has been a major focus in the final week before Sunday's kick-off, with Senegal star Sadio Mane and France striker Karim Benzema both being late withdrawals from their respective squads, the latter suffering a quadriceps injury on Saturday, depriving the tournament of the 2022 Ballon d'Or winner.

Benzema's injury is just one of several significant blows for holders France, and they dominate Stats Perform's injured XI of the players unable to feature in Qatar.

Goalkeeper: Mike Maignan (France)

Maignan had a fine maiden season at Milan after joining from Lille. He kept 17 clean sheets in Serie A last term, the highest tally in the league, and conceded just 21 goals, with his save percentage of 79.4 the best of any Serie A goalkeeper to play more than 10 games in the competition.

He has made seven appearances this season, but the 27-year-old suffered a calf injury in October, leaving Didier Deschamps shorn of a quality shot-stopper to challenge Hugo Lloris.

 

Defence: Ben Chilwell (England), Reece James (England), Presnel Kimpembe (France)

Chelsea duo Reece James and Ben Chilwell were by no means guaranteed to start for England, but it's still a blow to Gareth Southgate not to have the pair available.

James has excelled at wing-back and would have been an ideal fit if England stick with a three-man defence, while he could also have slotted in at centre-back, and Chilwell would likely offer more attacking threat than Luke Shaw on the left should the Three Lions have needed to chase a game.

Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe helped France win the 2018 World Cup, but he had to withdraw from Deschamps' squad for Qatar due to an Achilles problem.

Midfield: N'Golo Kante (France), Giovani Lo Celso (Argentina), Paul Pogba (France), Georginio Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

Giovani Lo Celso was not always a key player for Tottenham but retained his place as a crucial cog for Argentina. La Albiceleste will be without the midfielder, who sustained a hamstring injury while playing for Villarreal against Athletic Bilbao late in October.

Georginio Wijnaldum scored three goals in four games for the Netherlands at Euro 2020, but shortly after joining Roma on loan from PSG, the former Liverpool midfielder suffered a fractured tibia and had no chance of recovering in time to make Louis van Gaal's squad.

Another two France stars complete the midfield, with Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante missing for Les Bleus. Both players were exceptional in 2018, but Kante is out with a hamstring problem, while Pogba is yet to make an appearance for Juventus this season after joining from Manchester United.

 

Attack: Karim Benzema (France), Sadio Mane (Senegal), Christopher Nkunku (France)

It's fair to say France have been hit hardest by injuries to big players, and there could arguably be none bigger than Benzema, the Ballon d'Or holder. Given he is 34, it could well have been the Real Madrid striker's final shot at a World Cup and is a huge blow not only to France but to football fans around the world who were highly anticipating the Benzema-Kylian Mbappe link-up.

A player who might have softened the blow of Benzema's injury was Christopher Nkunku, had he not already been ruled out himself with a knee issue sustained in training last week, just before Les Bleus left for Qatar. Nkunku has been in sensational form for RB Leipzig, with only Mbappe of players from Europe's top five leagues having scored more goals (58) since the start of last season than the RB Leipzig star, who has amassed 52 in 75 games.

Mane, meanwhile, was carrying the hopes of Senegal on his shoulders. The Africa Cup of Nations holders have a talented squad, but Mane was the stardust. He went down with an injury to his fibula while in action for Bayern Munich just before the World Cup break, and though Senegal named the ex-Liverpool attacker in their squad, he underwent surgery earlier this week and was duly ruled out.

 

Karim Benzema insisted it was not in his nature to "give up" as he was forced to concede his World Cup dream with France was over.

A quadriceps problem in his left thigh has flared up and left the 34-year-old resigned to packing his bags rather than contributing for Les Bleus in Qatar.

He won the highly prized Ballon d'Or award last month, recognition of his spectacular form last season, but Benzema will be on the outside looking in on football's biggest show after suffering a setback in France's training session on Saturday.

It had been his first full on-pitch activity with the France squad during the pre-tournament camp, with Benzema having been determined to prove his fitness before the team's opening game against Australia on Tuesday.

He had been bothered by muscular fatigue in the left quadriceps while with Real Madrid in recent weeks, missing several games, and this latest blow may be a recurrence of that problem.

France have the option to call in a replacement for Benzema, who faces around three weeks of recovery. That time span suggests Benzema could have been fit in time to contribute before the end of the World Cup, but it was agreed he should be withdrawn from the squad.

Reports said France would decide whether to summon an additional player on Sunday.

Benzema wrote on Twitter and Instagram: "In my life I never give up but tonight I have to think about the team like I always do, so reason tells me to leave my place to someone who can help our team to have a great World Cup. Thank you for all your messages of support."

International team-mate and fellow superstar striker Kylian Mbappe replied by writing "Force", which translates to "Strength".

France and Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembele was another to send a message of support, as was Presnel Kimpembe, the defender who withdrew from the squad at the start of the week due to his own injury.

Benzema's Real Madrid team-mate Rodrygo, a member of Brazil's squad, wrote: "The best must compete in the best. You will be missed in the World Cup... Good recovery KB9!"

Didier Deschamps vowed the show must go on for France after the latest crushing blow to their World Cup hopes saw Karim Benzema ruled out of the tournament.

Pain in the quadriceps of his left thigh – a femoral rectus injury to be exact – means Real Madrid's Ballon d'Or winner will play no part in the Qatar 2022 finals.

Benzema, who missed Les Bleus' triumph at Russia 2018 while out of favour amid an ongoing blackmail investigation, was hoping to play a big part in the trophy defence this time.

He was battling to prove his fitness after recent injury strife with Madrid, and Saturday's training session was his first full on-pitch activity with the France squad of this camp.

The 34-year-old could not make it through unscathed though, pulling out after feeling discomfort. He had been bothered by muscular fatigue in the left quadriceps while with his club, and this may be a recurrence of that problem.

Benzema underwent an MRI at a Doha hospital, the French Football Federation said, and he faces three weeks of recovery. He has been withdrawn from France's squad, with Deschamps able to call in a replacement.

Deschamps said: "I'm extremely sorry for Karim who had made this World Cup a major objective."

World Cup holders France begin their defence on Tuesday against Australia, before also going up against Denmark and Tunisia in Group D.

Deschamps has Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as outstanding forward options, but the loss of Benzema is nevertheless a significant blow. It follows France also losing RB Leipzig's prolific Christopher Nkunku this week due to knee ligament damage sustained in training.

They are also without star midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante because of injury, and must be wondering what the coming weeks have in store for them.

Deschamps is determined to strike a positive note, saying: "Despite this new blow, I have every confidence in my squad. We are going to do everything to meet the immense challenge that awaits us."

Karim Benzema will miss the World Cup after the France striker suffered an injury blow on the eve of the tournament.

The Real Madrid captain, who missed Les Bleus' triumph at Russia 2018 while out of favour amid an ongoing blackmail investigation, was set to play a big part this time for Didier Deschamps' team.

Benzema won the Ballon d'Or last month after a spectacular 2021-22 season that saw him score 44 goals in 46 games for Madrid, helping the Spanish giants win LaLiga and the Champions League.

However, he has been troubled by physical setbacks this term and the most untimely and crushing of all blows for the 34-year-old came on the day before Qatar 2022 was set to get under way.

Benzema only resumed full training with France on Saturday, after recent muscle trouble, but he could not complete the squad session due to injury.

He underwent tests that produced results ruling him out of the tournament.

The French Football Federation said in a statement: "Karim Benzema has pulled out of the World Cup with a thigh injury. The whole team shares Karim's disappointment and wishes him a speedy recovery."

The former Lyon frontman was troubled by a knee blow earlier this season before missing further fixtures for Madrid after suffering from muscular fatigue in his left quadriceps, with Saturday's blow seemingly a recurrence of that.

World Cup holders France begin their defence on Tuesday against Australia, before also tackling Denmark and Tunisia in Group D on November 26 and 30 respectively.

Benzema's absence from the tournament is the latest in a line of major setbacks for France, even though coach Deschamps also has the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as forward options.

RB Leipzig's prolific Christopher Nkunku was forced to pull out of the squad this week after suffering knee ligament damage in a training collision with Eduardo Camavinga.

They also lost star midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante, who would have been central to Deschamps' plans.

Eric Garcia believes Spain's "spectacular" blend of exuberant youngsters and experienced veterans could see them beat any team at the World Cup in Qatar.

Between 2008 and 2012, Spain lifted two European Championship titles and also won their first World Cup as they dominated international football, boasting stars such as Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas and David Villa.

However, since that Euro 2012 triumph, Spain have not made it back to a major tournament final and the majority of their key players from those glory years have retired.

Just Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba remain from that Euro 2012 squad, but the emergence of exciting young talent such as Ansu Fati and Pedri has reignited hopes of success returning under the stewardship of Luis Enrique.

Defender Garcia feels Spain's mix of senior figures, such as Busquets and Alba, and their electrifying tyros could lead to a successful tournament in Qatar.

"For me, we have a perfect combination between young and old," Garcia told SPORT. "In the end, youngsters continue to learn every day, and other more experienced players try to teach us.

"I think that this combination has many benefits in many aspects, because this group is spectacular.

"We have to be ourselves. We know what we are capable of when we are ourselves, we can compete and beat any team. That is the first step, first Costa Rica and then the rest, with the intention of going far, which is what we want.

"Maybe we don't have a [Lionel] Messi or a Neymar, but we have players who individually contribute a great plus, like Pedri, Gavi, Busquets, [Marco] Asensio at the level he is. Having these players will help us."

Qatar will be Garcia's first taste of World Cup action with Spain, and he is thrilled to be part of the team, explaining how he watched past tournaments since childhood.

"As you get older, you're thinking, 'I wish I could be there one day'," he said. "It is a privilege to be able to be here, living an experience that everyone would like to live, so it must be appreciated and valued."

Garcia hopes to be selected in Luis Enrique's line-up for Spain's opening game against Costa Rice on Wednesday, adding: "The competition in each position is very high, but in my head is to work as much as possible in training and if the coach counts on me, be at the highest possible level every minute I play."

After the meeting with Costa Rica, Spain will take on Germany and Japan in Group E.

Jordan Henderson believes England's men should take inspiration from the Lionesses' Euro 2022 success as they chase Qatar World Cup glory.

Sarina Wiegman's side secured England's first major trophy since the men's World Cup in 1966 after a 2-1 extra-time victory over Germany in July.

Gareth Southgate's Three Lions reached the semi-finals at Russia 2018 before suffering penalty shoot-out heartbreak in the Euro 2020 final loss to Italy.

Henderson was named as part of England's 26-man squad who will look to go one step further in Qatar, and the midfielder referenced the success of Wiegman's women as an inspiration.

"The Lionesses have done a fantastic job and the whole country was behind them," Henderson told the BBC.

"Hopefully we can take inspiration from that and perform like they did. If we do that then I'm sure we'll have a good tournament."

The Liverpool captain is expected to play a back-up role in Southgate's midfield, with the likes of Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice being probable contenders for the starting XI.

Henderson will provide much-needed experience, though, as a Premier League and Champions League winner with Liverpool.

England will need such know-how if they are to go deep in the Middle East, where they are the only European team to have reached at least the semi-finals in each of the last two major tournaments.

Southgate's side start their Group B campaign against Iran on Monday before clashes with the United States and Wales.

Roberto Mancini has tipped Argentina to win their third World Cup as Lionel Messi and team-mates chase glory in Qatar.

Mancini's Italy side will not be involved after a shock 1-0 play-off defeat to North Macedonia in March.

Italy's absence from Qatar comes despite them being the reigning European champions, having beaten England on penalties in the Euro 2020 final.

That triumph subsequently saw them face off against Argentina in the UEFA/CONMEBOL Finalissima at Wembley in June, after Lionel Scaloni's men won the Copa America.

Argentina comfortably beat Italy 3-0, and Mancini says that performance plays a part in him ranking them as favourites for the World Cup.

"There are many strong teams," Mancini told reporters. "If I had to choose one, I'd go for Argentina.

"They really impressed when we played each other."

Italy have won their last three matches as they look to get over World Cup disappointment, most recently seeing off Albania in a 3-1 friendly victory on Wednesday. They face another game against Austria on Sunday.

Mancini is still upset about the failure to reach Qatar, but he has been pleased with his team's reaction, saying: "We immediately showed a desire to fight back, winning a Nations League group that was by no means easy ahead of Germany, Hungary and England.

"Unfortunately, we’ll have to keep this suffering until mid-December when the tournament is over. Next time, we need to be more precise."

Mauricio Pochettino has hinted Kylian Mbappe may need to leave his Paris Saint-Germain "comfort zone" to develop into a Ballon d'Or contender.

World Cup winner Mbappe, who will look to help France defend their crown in Qatar, has repeatedly been linked with a move away from the Parc des Princes to Real Madrid.

The Spanish and European champions appeared set to lure Mbappe to Madrid on a free transfer ahead of the 2022-23 season, only for the forward to sign a bumper three-year extension with PSG in May.

Further uncertainty clouded the 23-year-old's future as fresh reports of discontent emerged in October, though Mbappe assured his commitment remains in the French capital.

Yet, former PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino suggested the ex-Monaco attacker might have to move on to fully realise his world-class potential.

Pochettino told Spanish newspaper El Pais: "He may be a leader because everyone sees him as the best striker in the world, but today the Ballon d'Or has been won by Benzema, who is French like him. The evolution of Mbappe comes from leaving the comfort zone.

"Renewing for PSG is good for the club and its fans. But Mbappe in the future will have to consider that leaving his comfort zone will bring him closer to fighting for the Ballon d'Or."

Mbappe has found the net 19 times in 20 appearances for PSG this term, a tally only bettered by Manchester City's Erling Haaland (23) among players in Europe's top five leagues.

The PSG star became just the second teenager to score in a World Cup final (after Pele in 1958) at his first major international tournament in 2018, though Pochettino believes Mbappe is still "immature".

"Mbappe is younger than [Lionel Messi and Neymar] and still immature," Pochettino said. "But he has won a World Cup. He is an animal, he has great charisma but still needs to find himself.

"Leo and Ney are total players, they are more responsible although in different ways."

Mbappe will hope to fire France to more World Cup glory as Les Bleus start their campaign in the Middle East against Australia in Tuesday's Group D clash.

Karim Benzema has suffered an apparent injury setback on the eve of the Qatar World Cup, French media reported on Saturday.

The Ballon d'Or winner and Real Madrid superstar only resumed full training with Les Bleus this weekend but could not complete the session with Didier Deschamps' team.

L'Equipe and RMC Sport reported Benzema was forced out by injury, with no initial indication of how serious the problem might be.

Benzema was troubled by a knee injury earlier this season before missing further fixtures for Madrid after suffering from muscular fatigue in his left quadriceps.

World Cup holders France begin their defence on Tuesday against Australia, before also tackling Denmark and Tunisia in Group D on November 26 and 30 respectively.

Benzema's absence from the tournament, should it come to that, would be a major blow to France, even though coach Deschamps also has the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud as forward options.

RB Leipzig's prolific Christopher Nkunku was forced to pull out of the squad this week after suffering knee ligament damage in a training collision with Eduardo Camavinga.

Youssouf Fofana says he "will do everything" possible to earn a place in France's starting line-up at the World Cup in Qatar.

Fofana only made his France debut against Austria in September, but his impressive form in Ligue 1 for Monaco was enough to earn him a spot in Didier Deschamps' 26-man squad for the tournament.

Injuries to fellow midfielders Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante mean he may even start for the reigning world champions, potentially alongside former team-mate Aurelien Tchouameni.

The 22-year-old says he will do all he can to receive a place among France's starters for their opening match against Australia on Tuesday.

"As a newcomer [to the squad], we come to discover this great competition," Fofana told reporters. "Whether you are 23 or 30, the first World Cup is always important.

"As a competitor, I will do everything to earn my place in the 11, like the 26, but always with respect for my teammates."

Fofana's late charge into the squad may induce questions of whether he is up to the required standard to play at a World Cup for France, but the 22-year-old feels his performances speak for themselves.

"As I said, it's on the field that speaks," Fofana added. "The coach validated me. After the first game [debut against Austria], everyone validated me too!

"I no longer have time to tell myself whether I am happy or proud. The competition starts in two days.

"Two major players are absent [Pogba and Kante], but they also started in the France team one day. There is a beginning for everything."

France received a boost on Saturday as Raphael Varane returned to full training on Saturday.

After their match with Australia, Deschamps' men will take on Denmark and Tunisia in Group D as they look to retain their World Cup crown.

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