UEFA has confirmed format changes to both the Nations League and qualifiers for the European Championships and World Cup.

The changes to the Nations League, which began in 2018, include an additional knock-out element, with League A group winners and runners-up taking part in two-legged quarter-finals.

Teams that finish third in League A and League B will face off against the runners-up of League B and League C in two-legged promotion/relegation play-offs.

Changes to qualifying for European Championships and World Cups will now see 12 groups of either four or five teams drawn, with group winners qualifying and runners-up either also qualifying or entering play-offs.

"The introduction of the UEFA Nations League was a success story, replacing friendly games with more competitive matches," said UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. 

"And now, by introducing the new knock-out phase, teams will be given even more opportunities to progress while keeping the same number of games within the international match calendar.

"The predictability of the European Qualifiers has also been addressed and tackled, with a fresh new format that will offer all the teams an equal chance to qualify for major tournaments."

The amendments to qualifying will come into effect after Euro 2024.

It was also decided at an Executive Committee meeting on Wednesday that next season's UEFA Super Cup will be moved from its original host city of Kazan in Russia to Athens, Greece.

UEFA confirmed that the game between the winners of the Champions League and the winners of the Europa League will be played at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in the Greek capital on August 16.

Italy will be "hungry for revenge" following their World Cup absence when they meet Spain at the Nations League Finals in June, Roberto Mancini's assistant Alberico Evani has told Stats Perform.

The European champions missed out on a second consecutive edition of the global tournament last year after falling to a shock qualification play-off defeat against North Macedonia in March.

However, the Azzurri bounced back to top a competitive Nations League group containing Hungary, Germany and England as they qualified for the competition's final four for the second edition in a row.

Italy will face Spain – who beat them in the 2021 semi-finals at San Siro – on June 15 following Wednesday's draw, while hosts Netherlands will meet Croatia.

Evani, who was a World Cup runner-up as a player in 1994 before joining Mancini's backroom team in 2018, knows Spain will be tough opponents but hopes Italy can prove a point.

"We've struggled against them in the past because of their style of play," Evani said of the threat posed by La Roja. 

"We would have preferred to avoid them, but it's also nice to have to play against them, as we can see if we have improved. 

"We are the only two teams who reached the final four in the last two consecutive editions. Let's see if we can change the result. 

"We are hungry for revenge and to take back what we have left in London two years ago [when winning the delayed Euro 2020]. 

"We have the skills to do it and we are doing all we can to be competitive again, we are working to be in the best possible conditions in June."

Mancini recently called for coaches to be braver in giving top-level experience to young Italian players, something Evani is also keen to see. 

"We had a camp right before Christmas and we called up all these young players. There is a lot of quality, they are interesting players with big futures ahead of them," he said.

"We hope their respective clubs will let them play more and more so they can gain the right experience. We have the talents, I think the future is bright."

Evani was speaking less than a week after Serie A giants Juventus were issued with a 15-point deduction following an investigation into the club's past transfer dealings.

Italy won the 2006 World Cup amid investigations that saw several of Serie A's top clubs punished in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal, and Evani hopes the Azzurri can again find motivation from a crisis affecting the country's domestic league.

"Our country always find strength in hardships," he said. "We didn't qualify for the World Cup and we now have this issue with the entire Italian football system. Who knows, we might be able to find the right boost to reach new heights."

Ronald Koeman believes Cody Gakpo has a "great future" and made the right choice in signing for Liverpool.

After impressing at the World Cup, Gakpo joined Liverpool from PSV last month, with the Reds reportedly paying an initial £37million (€42m).

Since the start of last season until his move to Anfield, no player had more goal involvements in the Eredivisie than Gakpo's 46 (21 goals, 25 assists). Indeed, no other player in Europe's top 10 leagues tallied at least 20 goals and 20 assists over the same timeframe.

However, after four games – all starts – for Liverpool, Gakpo is yet to score or set up a goal. He has had 12 shots, with three hitting the target, and only 18 touches in the opposition penalty area.

While it has been a slow start for the 23-year-old, new Netherlands coach Koeman, back in charge for a second time, is confident Gakpo will develop into a top player.

"I think it's important that he's playing and that's really important for a young kid like Gakpo, [to be] struggling," Koeman told Stats Perform at the Nations League Finals draw, with the Oranje, who are hosts for the mini-tournament in June, having been pitted against Croatia in the semi-finals.

"It's difficult because Liverpool is not in the last few months at that [high] level. That's always difficult for a new signing, to come in during the season.

"You have to give him that time to develop and to adapt to the Premier League because it's a different level.

"The intensity is much higher than he used to play in Holland but he's young and he will learn and he will be better. But he has a great future."

As the Netherlands look beyond the Nations League Finals and towards Euro 2024, Koeman will be hoping to build on a young core of players.

"We have a great history, we have always creating good young talent and let's hope that they will develop as star players, and that will be really important for the national team," he added.

The Netherlands lost to Portugal in the final of the inaugural Nations League in 2019, and Koeman is hoping to make home advantage count this time around.

"We are looking forward, we play at home," he said. 

"We saw Croatia during the World Cup and they're a really experienced football team.

"It's an extra [boost] that we play in front of our crowd in Holland. We know what the difficulty is when you play away.

"We have that experience in 2019 against Portugal in the final that we lost 1-0. Let's hope that the crowd will push the team."

European champions Italy will face Spain in the last four at the Nations League Finals in June, with hosts Netherlands drawn against World Cup semi-finalists Croatia.

Italy, who were absent from a second consecutive edition of the World Cup in Qatar last year, reached the Nations League semi-finals by edging out Hungary for top spot in a group which also contained Germany and England.

Standing between Roberto Mancini's men and the final are Spain – who beat the Azzurri 2-1 at the same stage of the competition in 2021 before losing the final against France.

Spain, who saw off Portugal to win Group A2, will be led by new head coach Luis de la Fuente after Luis Enrique departed in the aftermath of their surprise World Cup exit against Morocco.

The Netherlands, who were beaten finalists at the inaugural 2019 Nations League Finals in Portugal, will face Croatia in a home semi-final at De Kuip in Rotterdam.

The Oranje are also under new management, with Ronald Koeman returning to the role in place of Louis van Gaal after their World Cup quarter-final loss to eventual champions Argentina.

While it's all change for Spain and the Netherlands, there will be a familiar look to Croatia's side in June, with talismanic midfielder Luka Modric pledging to continue his international career after helping the team win bronze in Qatar.

The semi-final fixtures will take place on June 14 and 15, with the third-place play-off and final being held on June 18.  

Fernando Santos has been appointed Poland head coach until 2026 following the end of his tenure with Portugal.

Santos, 68, was in charge of the Selecao for over eight years and guided them to success at Euro 2016 and the inaugural Nations League in 2019.

Despite those trophies, Portugal fans had become frustrated with the style of football Santos' team played in recent years, with there being a perception of him underachieving given the wealth of talent at his disposal.

Santos' Portugal contract was not due to expire until after Euro 2024, but he was removed from his role after the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Morocco last month.

Roberto Martinez has since replaced him.

Santos has not wasted much time in taking a new job either, however, with Poland his third international position in succession after also coaching Greece for four years prior to taking over Portugal.

He will be only Poland's third non-native head coach after Portuguese compatriot Paulo Sousa, who had a brief spell in charge in 2021, and Leo Beenhakker.

Polish Football Association (PZPN) president Cezary Kulesza had essentially confirmed the hiring on Monday when he posted a photo of himself with Santos, the caption announcing a press conference for the following day.

Santos' first goal will be to secure Poland's qualification for a fourth successive appearance at the European Championship, with the 2024 edition to take place in neighbouring Germany.

He will then be tasked with leading Poland to the 2026 World Cup in Canada, Mexico and the United States, after which his contract is due to end.

France were above the clouds when the news came from Karim Benzema, and a thought came to mind: had he ever been more distant, figuratively or literally, from Les Bleus?

Retiring from international football at the age of 35 is the sort of thing that would not usually raise many eyebrows.

Yet Benzema's announcement, and its timing, caused a fresh quake, even as the tremors from Sunday's World Cup final were still being felt.

Why had it come the day after that momentous game? Was it coming today, win or lose yesterday? Why had Benzema interrupted his own birthday to release the news? Had he waited for the team flight to depart from Qatar before dropping his bombshell?

And why, almost above all, was the announcement so curt? Just 160 characters (in its original French format) to put the lid on a story of 97 caps and 37 goals for Les Bleus.

"I made the efforts and the mistakes it took to be where I am today and I'm proud of it! I have written my story and ours is ending," Benzema signed off.

He's taking the kids, the car and the dog, and the house is in his name, and he'll be back for his train set, don't you worry about that. Forget counselling, here's your divorce papers.

It felt like an entirely apt ending to what has been often an unhappy marriage between Benzema and the France national team.

There were 15 years and 77 days between his first and last caps, and his goals haul ranks fifth on the team's all-time list. He was man of the match against Spain in a Nations League final triumph last year, but it will be Benzema's near six-year absence from international duty that most likely defines him as a France player.

Because what else are you remembering? Sure, he was a starter at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, but France went out in the quarter-finals each time. And yes, there was certainly that Nations League win, but such a soupcon of success hardly satisfied Benzema's hunger for a proper platter.

He had been starved of the prospect of such a feed at Euro 2016, where France reached the final but lost out to Portugal, and again at the 2018 World Cup, where they beat Croatia in the final.

If it had come down to ability, Benzema would have been a part of those French feasts, but his exclusion from each squad, and his absence from national team service between the 4-0 win over Armenia on October 8, 2015, and the 3-0 victory against Wales on June 2, 2021, was not about Benzema's playing merits.

In November 2021, Benzema was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence and fined €75,000 after being found guilty of complicity in the attempted blackmail of Mathieu Valbuena, a former international team-mate, in a case dating back to June 2015.

He always denied the accusations, having been accused of helping four other men blackmail Valbuena over an intimate video that had been taken from Valbuena's mobile phone. The other four defendants were also found guilty.

France froze Benzema out before any court verdict, excluding him essentially from the point of the allegations coming to light almost until the moment the verdicts were delivered.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet announced in November 2019 that Benzema would never play for France again.

"Karim Benzema is a very good player, I've never cast his qualities into doubt," said Le Graet. "On the contrary, he shows at Real Madrid that he is one of the best players in his position. But the France adventure is over."

This story could have been so different. Benzema captained France during a friendly against Brazil in March 2015, and during his absence from the national team his trophy tally at Madrid stacked up spectacularly.

He was dramatically recalled in time for the delayed Euro 2020 finals, which were held last year, saying he felt "so proud" to be back, with Didier Deschamps noting there had been long discussions that opened that door. France then exited at the last-16 stage, despite Benzema making a positive contribution on the pitch.

And now, barely 18 months later, the door that was pushed ajar has closed, with Benzema this time doing the shutting down of his international career, rather than the FFF.

His final cap came in a 1-0 home defeat to Croatia in the Nations League, back in June. He should have figured in France's World Cup squad, but when he aggravated a thigh injury on the eve of the tournament it was announced he would play no part in the Qatar 2022 campaign.

Then, when rumours swirled that Benzema might make a comeback in time for the final, Deschamps quashed the prospect.

"That doesn't interest me," Benzema subsequently posted on Instagram, a somewhat cryptic message. You took what you wanted from that remark, but it was hardly a good-luck message to the squad ahead of the final against Argentina.

So what happened for it to end this way, with seemingly little love on either side?

Former France defender Eric Di Meco told RMC Sport: "For me, it is a huge mess. A guy who plays so much time at Real, so strong, who is a Ballon d'Or winner, and who has never been able to express himself in the France team.

"There is his responsibility, and it is good that he says that there are mistakes. But for me, it's a mess at the level of the France team."

France will survive this, of course. They should have Kylian Mbappe around for the next decade, rewriting the record books.

But it takes an expert, perhaps, to judge what France have lost with news of Benzema's retirement.

Zinedine Zidane, who might yet be the next France coach, and possibly sooner rather than later, was asked after a Real Madrid game in December 2020 whether he considered Benzema to be the greatest French forward of all time.

"As far as I'm concerned, yes, he is," Zidane said. "He's showing it with all he's achieving. He's been at Real Madrid for a long time, he's played over 500 games, the goals... Really, the trophies he's won speak for themselves.

"For me, he's the best there is, no doubt about it."

After Zidane left Madrid, Benzema's performances went to still greater heights, hitting 44 goals in 46 games for Madrid last season, lifting the Champions League and LaLiga trophies as captain.

High up in the skies on Monday, the retirement news probably reached Deschamps and the returning France squad.

Benzema's tale of 'here's what you could have won' has arrived at a sad denouement, with Deschamps surely guessing he would face press interrogation about the striker on landing in Paris. And in that respect, plus ca change.

Gareth Southgate will stay on as England manager following a valiant World Cup exit to holders France, with the Three Lions boss set to lead his side through Euro 2024.

The news will undoubtedly please many and frustrate a few others, as the most successful man to lead the men's national team since Alf Ramsey sets his sights on a fourth major tournament.

Despite lacking tangible silverware for his efforts, no manager has come closer to success with them than Southgate for generations, with his side serving up plenty of highs and a handful of lows.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look over some of the defining moments of his tenure in charge – from breaking long-standing national hoodoos, to falling just short of all-time greatness.

Breaking the penalty curse

Heading into their first major tournament under Southgate, expectations were low for England. Dismal campaigns at Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016 were not forgotten, after a placid loss to Belgium wiped out a rout against Panama.

When Colombia stuck late in regular time to force a penalty shoot-out in the last 16, fans were braced for the worst. But Southgate bucked the trend – and put his own demons to rest – as his side held their nerve with a cathartic win on penalties.

Missing the mark in Moscow

Reaching the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time since 1990, England had transformed the goodwill of a nation back home, and Kieran Trippier's early free-kick gave them the perfect start.

But with an early lead on the board, Southgate's side slipped into defensive inertia rather than chase a second goal – and Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic subsequently struck to deliver the first heartbreak of his tenure.

Nailing the Nations League 

Grouped again with Croatia and a highly fancied Spain side for the inaugural Nations League campaign, England made a rough start, with defeat to La Roja and a draw against their former semi-final foes in 2018.

But a Raheem Sterling double in Seville saw them stun their hosts, before Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane struck late to deliver bedlam at Wembley against Croatia and take the Three Lions to the Finals.

A Dutch downer

But once at the Finals in Portugal, England failed to heed the lessons of Russia, and surrendered an early lead once more against the Netherlands as they lost in the semi-finals.

Though they beat Switzerland on penalties to finish third – and claim their first medal result of Southgate's time in charge – it marked a bittersweet end to what could have been a serious silverware shot.

Euro fever hits

In a pan-continental edition of the delayed 2020 European Championship, England were blessed with home advantage for the majority of their games – and with each successive result, they delivered a shot to Southgate's tenure.

The defensively minded approach of the manager, with a double-pivot in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, proved the perfect counter, and helped them reach the final, with a major win over old enemies Germany on the way.

Heartbreak against Italy

Forever the great "what-if" of the Southgate era, England headed into the final of Euro 2020 as marginal favourites, boosted by home advantage at Wembley and a Luke Shaw goal two minutes only strengthened their belief.

But across an ill-tempered encounter, Leonardo Bonucci's squeaky equaliser forced a shoot-out where the old ghosts reared their heads, as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed to hand Italy the crown.

Hungary like the wolf

On the back of a brilliant 2021, expectations were high as England entered a World Cup year, and they were favoured to do well in the latest Nations League iteration.

But a double loss to Hungary sunk their chances, and they were ultimately relegated from the top tier of the competition after struggles with Italy and Germany too – possibly the most humiliating moment of Southgate's tenure. 

An early bath in Qatar

With his reputation having been savaged in some quarters over 2022, it may seem weird to consider Qatar 2022 a high-water mark for Southgate – but the fact is it ranks among his most impressive tournament performances.

Incisive, attacking displays against Iran and Wales showcased his side's offensive nous, either side of a stalemate with the United States, as did a win over Senegal in the last 16.

While defeat to France in the quarter-finals was another great "what-if" moment, it marked the first England loss in a major tournament where they went down guns blazing. That points to a bright future – and Southgate may still be the man to harness it best.

Luka Modric has decided to play on for Croatia after the veteran captain helped his team to bronze at the Qatar World Cup.

That could mean Modric remains at the heart of the Croatia midfield at Euro 2024, by which time he will be approaching his 39th birthday.

Real Madrid playmaker Modric is not looking quite that far ahead for now, but crucially he has not ruled out extending his career for his country through to that point.

The first step for Modric will be a tilt with his country at the Nations League Finals in the Netherlands next year, with Croatia joined in that four-team tournament by the hosts, plus Italy and Spain.

Thrilled with another World Cup medal, after a silver four years ago in Russia, Modric told beIN SPORTS: "This medal is very important for us, for me, for Croatia as a national team and as a country.

"We confirm with this medal that Croatia is playing an important role in the world of football, and we are leaving Qatar as winners.

"About my future, I don't know if I will be at the Euros in Germany. I need to go step by step.

"I'm enjoying the national team, I feel happy, I still think I can perform on a high level, and I want to continue at least until the Nations League, and then after there'll be more time to think about the Euros.

"But now it's go step by step and continue at least until the Nations League, and after we will see."

There had been concern in some quarters that Modric would retire from international football after this World Cup, but coach Zlatko Dalic expressed optimism he would play on through to the 2024 European finals in Germany.

Now, after Saturday's 2-1 win over Morocco in the third-place play-off, Dalic's wish is close to becoming a reality.

Croatia have Wales, Armenia, Turkey and Latvia in their Euro 2024 qualifying group, and they would be strongly favoured to come through that and reach the finals.

It remains to be seen whether Dejan Lovren plays on, with the 33-year-old centre-back left with some thinking to do about his own future.

Lovren said getting a World Cup bronze was "something special" and paid tribute to Modric, his long-time colleague in the national team.

"I get emotional, because it's for us the last World Cup, and I lived so many great memories with him," Lovren said.

He said it was "an honour" to play in the company of such a top performer, with Modric having won the Ballon d'Or award after Croatia's run to the 2018 World Cup final.

Lovren even said Modric had proven himself a superior performer to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the latter stages of World Cups.

Messi may have something to say about that after Sunday's final, when Argentina take on France.

"He's better than them in these moments," Lovren said of Modric. "There's not too many players who took the silver and the bronze.

"He can be proud and he knows that. He's a special guy."

As for his own future, with a view to the next Euros, former Liverpool defender Lovren said: "I wish I can tell you what will happen in two years. I'm just enjoying this moment, and we will see."

Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at the World Cup in Qatar looking to cap his remarkable international career by lifting football's greatest prize.

But the forward ended his campaign distraught, being led to the dressing room in tears after Morocco stunned Portugal with a 1-0 quarter-final victory at Al Thumama Stadium.

Ronaldo's tournament was one to forget, with the 37-year-old unceremoniously dropped for his nation's best performance against Switzerland in the last 16 and again being reduced to a role off the bench against Morocco.

It was an underwhelming campaign, but one that will not detract from his previous achievements on the international stage, regardless of whether he continues to represent his country.

As well as becoming the all-time leading goalscorer in men's international football, Ronaldo led Portugal to their first major trophy at Euro 2016 before repeating the trick in the Nations League, and his Selecao records look unlikely to be matched any time soon.

With one of the all-time greats facing an uncertain future after seeing his "biggest and most ambitious dream" dashed, Stats Perform assesses the remarkable numbers behind Ronaldo's Portugal career.

 

Ronaldo has attracted plenty of plaudits for his longevity, deciding games at the highest level from his teenage years until his late thirties. The forward's incredible tally of 196 Portugal caps puts him 50 clear of his nearest contender – Wolves midfielder Joao Moutinho with 146. 

If his appearance record looks set to stand for a long time, his goalscoring numbers look even less likely to be challenged – Ronaldo's tally of 118 international goals is more than double that of Portugal's second-highest goalscorer (Pauleta with 47), and is unmatched in the history of men's football.

Indeed, Iran's Ali Daei is the only other player to have reached a century of goals in international football, hitting the net 109 times.

While Ronaldo's ability to reinvent himself as the ultimate goal poacher allowed him to prosper on the club stage, his international goalscoring prowess was by no means a later development.

Ronaldo failed to score on his first two Portugal appearances as an 18-year-old in 2003, but he has netted at least one international goal in each of the 19 subsequent years.

In 2004, a teenage Ronaldo hit the net seven times in 16 international appearances, helping his side to the Euro 2004 final on home soil and scoring at a rate of a goal every 145 minutes.

Ronaldo's most prolific year for Portugal came in 2019, when he scored 14 times in just 10 appearances at an incredible rate of 59 minutes per goal.

 

On the club stage, Ronaldo has carved out a reputation as the ultimate big-game player – netting in Champions League finals for both Manchester United and Real Madrid while outscoring every other player on Europe's grandest stage (140 goals).

Ronaldo has also appeared to prefer playing within his own continent in a Portugal shirt; his tally of 14 goals at the European Championships is an all-time record, putting him five clear of France great Michel Platini.

Ronaldo has also hit the net seven times in just 11 Nations League games, perhaps making it fitting that his greatest achievements have come when leading his side to continental glory at Euro 2016 and in 2018-19's Nations League campaign.

At the World Cup, it has been a slightly different story for Ronaldo. His tally of eight finals goals is certainly not to be taken lightly, but all of those efforts came in the group stages – no player has scored more often at the tournament without netting in a knockout tie.

Ronaldo did become the first player to score in five different editions of the World Cup when he struck a penalty in their group-stage win over Ghana last month, but that record will mean little in the context of his failure to carry his continental achievements into the world's most important competition.

 

Ronaldo may have failed to get his hands on international football's most prestigious trophy, but that has not stopped the likes of Johan Cruyff or Ferenc Puskas from being considered contenders to be the greatest player to have played the sport.

Proponents of Ronaldo's suitability for that title have often highlighted his raw numbers, and they certainly speak to an historic legacy.

Twenty-four of Ronaldo's 118 Portugal goals have been scored at the World Cup, European Championships or Confederations Cup, with just 20 coming in friendlies, demonstrating his status as a player who has thrived under the brightest of lights.

Age catches up with us all eventually, however, and Ronaldo's displays in Qatar attracted plenty of detractors. 

Where Ronaldo ranks among the greatest players to feature on the international stage will continue to be discussed, but his incredible statistics ensure he will always have a place in that debate.

The Netherlands have been officially confirmed as hosts for the 2023 Nations League Finals.

The Oranje were widely expected to welcome their rivals to face them on home soil, as only them and Group A4 opponents Belgium, Poland and Wales expressed an interest in staging the knockout finale.

Having seen off the trio to qualify as group winners, the Netherlands will now welcome Croatia, Italy and Spain next year for the climax to the 2022-23 edition.

In the absence of the Johan Cruyff Arena and Philips Stadion due to concerts, the matches will be played instead at Feyenoord's De Kuip and De Grolsch Veste - the home of FC Twente.

The tournament commences with the semi-finals on June 14 and June 15, while the final and third-place play-off will take place on June 18.

The draw to determine the last-four pairings will be made at UEFA's headquarters in Nyon next January.

Pedri believes last year's near misses in the European Championship and the Nations League will benefit Spain in their quest to win a second World Cup this year.

The Barcelona midfielder was named Young Player of the Tournament as Spain were beaten by Italy in the semi-finals of the delayed Euro 2020, before La Roja suffered a Nations League final defeat to France last October.

While Spain have only reached the World Cup's final four once in their past 13 participations – when they won the tournament in 2010 – Pedri is optimistic about their chances of competing in Qatar.

Asked by Mundo Deportivo whether Luis Enrique's side could win the tournament, the 19-year-old responded: "Why not? 

"You have to focus first on the group stage and then on the following rounds, but we have a team to be able to compete.

"We come from a European Championship and a Nations League where we did very well. In the Euros we reached the semi-finals, and I was sure that if we went to the final, we would win it. 

"In the Nations League I could hardly play, but the team was very good. We are a very good group and it shows on the pitch.

"We don't have a megastar, the group is our best star. When you all run together and everyone knows what they want and what you're playing for, I think you have a lot done and a good chance of winning.

"We are going to the World Cup with everything, with a lot of desire to give the fans happiness, whether they support us from home or from Qatar. Let's give it our all."

Pedri believes two South American sides could represent Spain's main competitors in Qatar, with the form of Paris Saint-Germain star and Barca legend Lionel Messi likely to be crucial to any challenge from Argentina.

"I think that Brazil and Argentina have two great teams," Pedri said. "Brazil because they have incredible quality in their players and Argentina because they have the best player, and I think they are going to really want to win this World Cup."

Spain begin their World Cup campaign against Costa Rica next Wednesday before facing fellow Group E foes Germany and Japan.

Gareth Southgate believes England have grown stronger as a result of their poor form ahead of the World Cup, as he pledged to stand firm on his selections.

England suffered a humiliating relegation from the top tier of the Nations League last month, finishing their campaign with three points – and no wins – from six games.

The Three Lions begin their World Cup campaign against Iran on November 21, and their six-match winless run is their longest such sequence going into a major tournament.  

Southgate was jeered by England supporters in the aftermath of a 1-0 defeat to Italy on September 23 and has been criticised for standing by Manchester United's struggling defender Harry Maguire.

Speaking at Monday's Legends of Football event in aid of Nordoff Robbins Music, Southgate accepted criticism of his decisions, but maintained he must sometimes resist "popular appeal".

"I think everybody in the country can see we're trying to accomplish extraordinary things," he said. "To accomplish extraordinary things is incredibly difficult. 

"This is a job where every decision, every selection is questioned, debated, ridiculed. That's just by my postman, by the way!

"Column inches are full, airwaves are filled. As a manager, you're not going to get every decision right.

"But I have to be strong enough to withstand popular appeal for something and do what I really believe gives us the best chance to win. 

"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you. If you can trust yourself, when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too. That doubting, that noise that surrounds us is because people care. They're passionate. 

"They just want to win, and I understand that. And if we don't win for six matches, then quite rightly, I have to accept that criticism. 

"That's what goes with our job. If nobody cared or commented, then it wouldn't be the great and incredible challenge that it is."

England failed to score an open-play goal in their first five Nations League games, before coming from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 in last week's thrilling draw with Germany, but Southgate believes the team's poor run could benefit them heading to Qatar.

"Milan was painful. I knew walking over to our fans that it wasn't going to end well. But I wasn't going to take a backward step," Southgate added.

"I've enjoyed the warmth and the adulation, so you've got to ride with the discomfort as well.

"Against Germany, I think we showed what we're capable of, good and bad. It showed there is character there. As a team, I think we'll be better for that challenging period we've just been through.

"You wouldn't choose to go into a World Cup with the run of results we've had, but I actually think we're stronger for that and the players have had to take some ownership. 

"Those moments, like coming back from to 2-0 down and hearing the roof lift off Wembley, are hard to describe."

With England reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2018 and finishing as runners-up at Euro 2020, expectations surrounding the Three Lions have undoubtedly risen.

"In seven weeks' time, I get to lead my country to another World Cup. We have players I'm proud to lead, who give us everything," Southgate said.

"We want to bring people together, create memories and history. I've said before the last two tournaments: if we can make people proud, we'll have had an amazing time.

"I know that the bar of what might be deemed success is raised and getting higher for us. But as a team, we have to focus on performance, and the rest will fall into place.

Christian Eriksen believes he and Bruno Fernandes have formed a strong relationship in Manchester United's midfield due to their complementary qualities. 

Eriksen has become a key part of Erik ten Hag's new-look United team since swapping Brentford for Old Trafford in July, playing behind Fernandes in a deep-lying midfield role.

The Denmark international produced a masterful showing in United's last Premier League game against Arsenal, claiming an assist and leading his team-mates for passes completed (33) and chances created (three) in the 3-1 victory.

Speaking to United's media channels after winning the club's Player of the Month award for September, Eriksen said playing alongside Fernandes was a key reason for his success.

"Some people see us as very similar players, but they probably only look at the stats and don't see us, the player and the qualities," Eriksen said.

"We have different qualities, a different style of play and, with Bruno and in general, I think I'm learning to get to know all my team-mates better. 

"We're starting to get that connection. With Bruno, it's a good connection and it's nice to have such a good footballer in front of me.

"I think, from my own point of view, it's only been a few months but it feels like I've been here longer. 

"It's to do with the club, the people working for the club, the team. In general, I've been made to feel very welcome since day one and I felt at home straight away."

Eriksen carried his strong club form onto the international stage this month, scoring in Denmark's Nations League defeat to Croatia before producing a strong performance in a 2-0 win over France.

The 30-year-old will hope for a similar result when Denmark are reunited with Didier Deschamps' team in the World Cup group stages in November, but he expects to face a much-improved France side.

"We play France very often! In the Nations League, also before in the World Cup [in 2018], we played against France and now again," he added.

"The game was good for us the other day. It was a nice send-off before the World Cup, to get a good feeling before the World Cup. 

"We know, at the same time, France will be a completely different team when we play them next, with different players compared to what they had, but, for us, as a team, it was a perfect goodbye before the World Cup.

"Now there's no more breaks and I can be fully focused on United until the World Cup."

Ten Hag's team will face their toughest test to date when they travel to Manchester City on Sunday – each of United's last five managers have lost their first Manchester Derby in the Premier League (David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick).

But Eriksen is looking forward to his first trip to the Etihad Stadium as a United player, adding: "It's going to be a tough test. 

"We're feeling good and in a good place, really flowing and I'm looking forward to the game. 

"It's a first derby for me personally, in Manchester, and hopefully it's going to be a fun game to play in and a fun game to watch."

Eddie Howe has no interest in succeeding Gareth Southgate as England manager, with a move into the international game not appealing "at this moment in my life".

Three Lions boss Southgate has been hugely successful since his appointment in 2016, leading his team to the World Cup semi-finals, Nations League Finals and Euro 2020 final, but he heads into Qatar 2022 under pressure.

England are winless in six – their worst such sequence since 1993 and worst ever heading into a major tournament – and there have been calls for Southgate to move on.

As one of the leading English coaches in the Premier League, Newcastle United's Howe would appear an obvious candidate to replace him.

However, while praising Southgate, Howe said the England role was not one he would be interested in "in the short term", with his focus on Newcastle.

"I think Gareth's done an incredible job, I really do," Howe said on Friday. "I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

"I've been lucky enough to go in and see him work, I've spent time with him. I've got a lot of time for him and for Steve Holland and his team there.

"I think they've been amazing for England. I think you have to remember where England [were] when he took over and what he's done for the country.

"I never say never, I never say, 'no, it's not something I'd be interested in'. But certainly not in the short term. It's not on my radar at all. It's all Newcastle and investing and trying to make this team the best I can."

Explaining why that might be, Howe added: "I've always said I love the day-to-day coaching. I love being with my players on the training ground.

"In international football, you get that taken away for long periods. At this moment in my life, that's not something I want to do."

Howe still had an interest in England's Nations League matches against Italy and Germany, with Nick Pope starting in goal and Newcastle team-mate Kieran Trippier on Southgate's bench.

Pope, deputising for Jordan Pickford, made an awful error in the Germany game that gifted the visitors an equaliser at Wembley after England had recovered from two goals down to lead 3-2.

"[Pope] is in a good place," Howe said ahead of Saturday's game at Fulham. "He's aware how special those games are for him in his career.

"From where he's come from, to experience those moments is brilliant. But he's earned the right to get to the position in his career that he's at."

Howe described himself as "very proud" of Pope and backed his goalkeeper to recover.

"You need to be able to deal with mistakes. It's part of the job when you're in that position," the Newcastle coach added.

"Nick is a very calm, level-headed guy. He's incredibly focused. I've got no problem with him returning; I know he'll carry on where he left off for us."

Brentford head coach Thomas Frank believes Ivan Toney can "prove people wrong" after failing to get on the pitch in either of England's Nations League games over the international break.

Toney was left out of the matchday squad by Gareth Southgate for the 1-0 defeat to Italy and, while he was included in the 23 players chosen for the Germany match, he was not called upon off the bench.

The 26-year-old had been called up for the first time by Southgate after a superb start to the season in which he netted five times in Brentford's first six league games.

And Frank says Toney must use this disappointment to fuel his performances for the Bees, telling reporters: "Of course Ivan hoped to come on the pitch. 

"I think in life and football the way you get success is you can show resilience and come back from smaller setbacks.

"It is a minor setback, a minor disappointment, but you need to move forward and just prove people wrong by performing well and that's the only thing he can do.

"So it's actually relatively simple. But a little bit more difficult of course to do it day in day out. But Ivan has a strong mentality and he will do everything he can to perform well."

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