Jamaica Reggae Boy interim head coach, Paul Hall, was in a bullish mood ahead of Thursday’s crucial World Cup qualifiers against Mexico at the National Stadium.

The match will be the second fixture but the first World Cup qualifier for Hall, who stepped in to replaced Theodore Whitmore in December of last year.  With the team adrift in sixth place and 7 points behind the qualifying positions, it seems safe to say only a win will do for the Reggae Boyz against a typically dangerous opponent.

Hall is aware of the challenge at hand but feels confident the team can find a way to pull off the crucial result.

"We got to make sure we stay focussed and motivated with the task at hand and if we can do that and get into the game and find our rhythm and be expressive with our play then we will be ok," Hall said.

“They won’t want to lose they are probably going to have the same attitude as ourselves, so I feel it will be a tight affair,” he added.

“We will respect the Mexicans and what they bring and I would ask my team to make sure that Mexico respects what we bring, with our energy, with our rhythm, and with our desire,” he added.

The Mexicans, who will be without key players Hirving Lozano and Raul Jiminez, are currently third in the standings, on 14, the same number of points as Panama.  In the reverse fixture, the Mexicans scored late to win 2-1.  The Jamaicans will play Panama three days later before hosting Costa Rica.  All teams are directly above them in the table.  

 

Brazil head coach Tite is bullish that Philippe Coutinho can help replace the injured Neymar in his first appearance in national colours for more than 12 months.

Coutinho, who earlier this month joined Aston Villa on loan from Barcelona, is set to line up for Selecao in place of the suspended Lucas Paqueta in Thursday's World Cup qualifier away to Ecuador.

The 29-year-old has not played for Brazil since October 2020 having undergone knee surgery in January 2021.

Coutinho's return coincides with the absence of Neymar who is out for the upcoming qualifiers with an ankle injury.

"People always want Neymar, but at times things don't happen the way you want," Tite told reporters.

"We feel sorry that Neymar can't be here, but we have other options. I'm talking about Coutinho. He is a player that can play in that role and I believe in his quality.

"Coutinho is an important player and he's been recovering to his best level."

He added: "From a social and human standpoint, I know how much time he has invested and the challenges he has faced to recover from injury."

Ex-Liverpool forward Coutinho has started life at Villa brightly, netting the equalizing goal in the 2-2 draw with Manchester United on debut.

Brazil have already clinched their spot at Qatar 2022, but Tite wanted to push his players in the qualifiers against Ecuador and also Paraguay on Tuesday.

"I thought the emotions and feelings would be lighter but no, we have the same emotions and anxieties," Tite said.

"I want to test players in the upcoming qualifiers. I still have the same pressure."

Tite confirmed that he will field Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior against Ecuador along with Raphinha and Matheus Cunha.

Equatorial Guinea advanced to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations after Falaye Sacko's missed penalty consigned Mali to a shock 6-5 shoot-out defeat.

Spot-kicks were required to settle a poor round-of-16 showdown after a goalless 120 minutes at Limbe Stadium on Wednesday, and Sacko's tame strike was decisively kept out by Jesus Owono.

Pablo Ganet had passed up the chance to win it for the underdogs when Ibrahim Mounkoro denied him from 12 yards after Mali duo Massadio Haidara and Hamari Traore failed to convert, but Sacko's miss sealed a last-eight meeting with Senegal for Equatorial Guinea on Sunday.

Mali were awarded a penalty late in a drab first half when Josete Miranda was adjudged to bundled Moussa Doumbia over, but referee Bakary Gassama overturned his decision following a check on the pitchside monitor.

The Eagles had been the better side to that point and Mohamed Camara should have put them in front after the break, blazing high over the crossbar from 12 yards out after Yves Bissouma had set him up.

Neither side really looked like winning it in extra time, but it was Equatorial Guinea who were celebrating despite Emilio Nsue blazing the first spot-kick high over the bar and Ganet also fluffing his lines.

Mali claimed Owono had come off his line before Sacko struck the decisive penalty, but their protests were waved away.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uruguay striker Luis Suarez "cannot understand" why players are being forced to play so many fixtures in such a congested period.

South American nations are playing two World Cup qualifiers over the coming days, after FIFA inserted an extra international break into the calendar.

European countries are not in action, but CONMEBOL are attempting to catch up on fixtures missed due to the coronavirus pandemic and last year's Copa America.

Uruguay are one of five teams separated by just two points in the qualification standings, but have lost their past four games by an aggregate of 11-1.

They travel to Paraguay on Thursday, before hosting Venezuela on February 1. However, that second game comes just two days before a crucial Copa del Rey tie for Real Madrid, and Federico Valverde is set to travel back to Spain for that match.

Three other players, Getafe trio Mathias Olivera, Damian Suarez and Mauro Arambarri, could well have to be involved in a LaLiga match on February 4, while Suarez's Atletico Madrid are in action against his former club Barcelona on February 6.

It is a situation that leaves Suarez frustrated.

"I have to speak about the physical part of being a human being as well as a sportsman," he told reporters.

"We cannot understand how it is that we will compete in a World Cup qualifier next Tuesday and that Pajarito [Valverde] in this case, will have to compete in a Copa del Rey match.

"That my colleagues from Getafe, Mauro, Damian and Mati, will have to play that Friday in a LaLiga match. The schedule is quite tight, but we have to adapt to it.

"We are professionals and will do our job on the pitch because that is demanded from us, but sometimes the players are not in other people's thoughts.

"It happened before when we played three qualifiers in 10 days, with long trips of more than 12-15 hours, and obviously fatigue then has an influence."

Suarez, however, insists the squad's full focus is on arresting their dismal form and pushing on to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar this year.

He said: "There are players who go through different stages of both winning and losing streaks. But when you come into the national team, the games that you have been playing suddenly do not matter.

"What matters is the hunger to compete, the wish to live and feel what I feel with this shirt on and to keep demonstrating that I am prevailing and that I want to keep competing and have the burning ambition to make it to the World Cup.

"I've been lucky enough to have played in three World Cups already and now, at 35 years old, I want to continue with that same ambition and I wish to keep playing World Cups and to have the chance to play at my fourth World Cup. Because of that, I am here."

Eric Bailly missed from the spot as Egypt progressed to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations by knocking out Ivory Coast on penalties.

The most frequently contested match in the tournament's history – this was the 11th time these sides have met – was decided when Mohamed Salah swept home to secure a 5-4 win in the shoot-out after 120 goalless minutes in Douala.

In a tight first 90 minutes of few chances, arguably the best fell to Amr El Soleya, who blasted over after being teed up in space by Salah.

Egypt goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy tipped over a Sebastien Haller header before keeping out a Wilfried Zaha effort, but he was replaced with two minutes of normal time left due to injury.

A bright start from Egypt to extra time saw El Soleya presented with another chance, the Al Ahly midfielder unable to keep his awkward header down from six yards out.

A speculative Ibrahim Sangare strike was well saved by Mohamed Abou Gabal, and Simon Deli got in front of the replacement goalkeeper from the resulting corner only to head over.

Salah's cut-back set up Trezeguet with practically the final kick of extra time, but the Aston Villa man shot straight at Badra Ali Sangare from six yards.

The opening four penalties of the shoot-out were scored before 'Gabaski' clawed Bailly's effort onto the crossbar, the Manchester United defender's run-up not fooling the keeper.

Zaha swept home to put the pressure on Salah, who found the bottom-right corner to set up a last-eight meeting with Morocco.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said  his comments suggesting biennial World Cups could convince African people not to risk "death" by crossing the Mediterranean Sea were "taken out of context".

Infantino was addressing the European Council on Wednesday, speaking about a range of topics including football agents, Qatar 2022 and FIFA's proposals for World Cup finals every two years.

He concluded his speech by talking about the latter, outlining how FIFA's reasoning behind the controversial idea – which is being pushed by Arsene Wenger – comes down to a desire to let more people around the world enjoy the best players for "the future of football".

Infantino said: "We see that football is going to a direction where the few have everything and the vast majority have nothing. I understand.

"In Europe, the World Cup happens twice per week because the best players are playing in Europe. In Europe there's no need for additional events, but if we think about the rest of the world, and even in Europe, the vast majority of Europe that doesn't see the best players, that doesn't participate in the top competitions."

But, as he went on to explain ethical dilemmas currently troubling the sport, Infantino's address took a curious turn, suggesting the proposed World Cup changes – and greater inclusion in global football – could make refugees think twice about fleeing Africa for Europe.

He added: "We have to think about what football brings, which goes beyond the sport, because football is about what I was saying at the beginning – it's about opportunities, about hope, about national teams, the country, heart, the joy and emotion. You cannot say to the rest of the world, 'give us your money and if you happen to have a good player, give us the player as well, but you just watch on TV'. We need to include them. We need to find ways to include the entire world, to give hope to Africans so they don't have to cross the Mediterranean in order to, maybe, find a better life but more probably death in the sea.

"We need to give opportunities and we need to give dignity, not by giving charity but by allowing the rest of the world to participate. Maybe a World Cup every two years isn't the answer, [but] we discuss it, debate it."

Several hours later, the Swiss – via a statement released on FIFA's Twitter account – took the opportunity to clarify his comments.

The statement read: "Given that certain remarks made by me before the Council of Europe earlier today appear to have been misinterpreted and taken out of context, I wish to clarify that, in my speech, my more general message was that everyone in a decision-making position has a responsibility to help improve the situation of people around the world.

"If there are more opportunities available, including in Africa, but certainly not limited to that continent, this should allow people to take these opportunities in their own countries.

"This was a general comment, which was not directly related to the possibility of playing a FIFA World Cup every two years."

South Korea international Hwang Hee-chan will join Wolves permanently at the end of the season, the Premier League club has confirmed.

Hwang initially joined on a season-long loan from Bundesliga side RB Leipzig and agreed personal terms on a deal before arriving in England.

Wolves have now activated a clause to make the move permanent from July for a fee reportedly in the region of £12million.

The deal will run to 2026 and was confirmed by the club's website on the player's 26th birthday.

The former Salzburg forward made an impactful start at Wolves, scoring four goals in his first six Premier League games, including his first strike just 20 minutes into his debut after coming off the bench in the 2-0 win at Watford in September.

He has failed to find the net since scoring the opener in the 1-1 draw at Leeds United in October, however, and has not played since sustaining a hamstring injury in the 1-0 win at Brighton last month.

 

Hwang first came to prominence at Salzburg during the 2019-20 season, playing in an attack that included Erling Haaland, Takumi Minamino and Patson Daka, before signing for RB Leipzig for around €9m in 2020.

However, he only managed three goals and four assists in 29 appearances across all competitions for Die Roten Bullen – albeit only five of those were starts.

Wolves technical director, Scott Sellars, was delighted to confirm the news and told the club's website: "He's had a really positive affect on not only the team, but also the whole football club, and he's been a fantastic addition to Wolves.

"We could see straight from our first meeting with him that Hee-chan is such a focused and determined young man who wants to be successful in his football career.

"He's not had the experiences he would have liked at Leipzig and he wanted a change, and he's grabbed his opportunity here in the Premier League with both hands. He's shown a lot of determination, a lot of focus and certainly a lot of professionalism every day, and he's got his rewards in terms of his performances and his goals."

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has curiously suggested biennial World Cups could convince African people to not cross the Mediterranean Sea "in order to maybe find a better life but, more probably, death".

World football's governing body, led by chief of global football development Arsene Wenger, has been promoting proposals for the World Cup to change its current quadrennial format.

FIFA reported to its member associations at their global summit in December that the changes would make the sport $4.4billion richer over the first four-year cycle.

According to Infantino, that figure would then climb to $6.6billion if each confederation also switched its flagship regional competition to become biennial, while FIFA claimed its members were largely in support of the plans.

UEFA has continuously opposed the proposals, while some domestic competitions – such as the Premier League – have also urged FIFA to keep things as they are.

But FIFA has been pressing ahead with feasibility studies and opinion polls, with its plan seeming to revolve around greater global participation.

However, in an address to the European Council on Wednesday, Infantino's attempts to further sell the idea took a puzzling turn, as he appeared to claim biennial World Cups could prevent refugees from fleeing to Europe from Africa.

He said: "The final topic I'd like to mention briefly is the future of football… Let me say on this topic, we'd have preferred to be engaged in a debate with the European Council, and I take this first step in discussing the future as well of course with the Council, because this topic is not [just] about whether we want a World Cup every two years.

"It's about what do we want to do for the future of football. The [European] Super League was mentioned earlier... We see that football is going to a direction where the few have everything and the vast majority have nothing.

"I understand. In Europe, the World Cup happens twice per week because the best players are playing in Europe. In Europe there's no need for additional events, but if we think about the rest of the world, and even in Europe, the vast majority of Europe that doesn't see the best players, that doesn't participate in the top competitions.

"Then we have to think about what football brings, which goes beyond the sport, because football is about what I was saying at the beginning – it's about opportunities, about hope, about national teams, the country, heart, the joy and emotion.

"You cannot say to the rest of the world, 'give us your money and if you happen to have a good player, give us the player as well, but you just watch on TV'.

"We need to include them. We need to find ways to include the entire world, to give hope to Africans so they don't have to cross the Mediterranean in order to, maybe, find a better life but more probably death in the sea.

"We need to give opportunities and we need to give dignity, not by giving charity but by allowing the rest of the world to participate. Maybe a World Cup every two years isn't the answer, [but] we discuss it, debate it.

"We started the process with a vote of 88 per cent of the FIFA congress, including 30 European members out of 55, to debate and see what the best way is to be more inclusive, not just to speak about saying no to discrimination, but to actually act in that direction by bringing everyone on board, trying to give opportunities and dignity to the entire world."

Lyon have insisted there has been no deal struck with Newcastle United for midfielder Bruno Guimaraes.

Guimaraes, who is currently on international duty with Brazil, is said to be a target for a number of Premier League clubs, including Arsenal.

However, on Wednesday, The Athletic reported that it was struggling Newcastle, who are looking to make big moves in order to boost their Premier League survival bid under Eddie Howe, who had made big inroads in a deal for the 24-year-old.

The Athletic's report stated that Guimaraes would undergo a medical in South America in order for the transfer to go through.

Numerous other outlets, including BBC Sport, then reported that Newcastle were closing in on securing the transfer, though stopped short of stating a medical would soon take place.

 

Yet Lyon have now issued a statement denying any speculation that an agreement had been reached.

"Olympique Lyonnais categorically denies the false information disseminated by many media reporting an agreement between Newcastle and OL for the transfer of Brazilian international midfielder Bruno Guimaraes," the statement read.

"In this transfer window period where the slightest rumour is often presented as reality, Olympique Lyonnais reminds that only information officially released by the club is to be taken into consideration."

Guimaraes joined Lyon from Athletico Paranaense in January 2020. He has gone on to make 56 appearances in Ligue 1, scoring three goals. 

He also has an Olympic gold medal to his name, having helped Brazil defend their crown in Tokyo last year.

Newcastle have made two signings in January, bringing Kieran Trippier back to the Premier League from Atletico Madrid, and drafting in Chris Wood from relegation rivals Burnley.

The Magpies are also attempting to sign a centre-back, though have so far been frustrated in their attempts to bring in Sevilla's Diego Carlos, while on Wednesday, reports claimed Brighton and Hove Albion had turned down an approach for Dan Burn.

Senegal have been criticised by brain injury association Headway for their handling of Sadio Mane's head injury in the Africa Cup of Nations win over Cape Verde.

Liverpool star Mane received a nasty blow to the head in a collision with Cape Verde goalkeeper Vozinha, who was sent off after a VAR review of the incident, during Tuesday's last-16 tie.

Mane received treatment on the field but was allowed to stay on and subsequently curled in a brilliant opener for Senegal, who went on to win 2-0.

The forward was taken off shortly after and was then taken to hospital for further assessment.

A photograph – posted on the official Africa Cup of Nations Twitter account – revealed that Vozinha visited Mane in hospital after the game.

Sharing the photo on Instagram, Mane told his 9.1million followers: "All is well. Thank you all for the messages."

However, brain injury association Headway have criticised how Senegal allowed Mane to play on following the collision.

"On the face of it, this seems to be yet another example of football putting results ahead of player safety," said Luke Griggs, deputy chief executive of Headway, in a statement released on the association's website.

"This was a sickening collision that clearly left both players in enough distress for a concussion to have surely been considered a possibility at the very least.

"At that point, the principle of 'if in doubt, sit it out!' should have resulted in Mane being substituted without another ball being kicked.

"The image of the player collapsing on the ground and having to be helped from the pitch after scoring his goal should tell you everything you need to know about the impact and the effect it had had on his brain.

"Yet again, the desire to win is seen as being worth serious risks to players' health. It is simply shocking that this continues to happen.

"This is now a real test of leadership for The Confederation of African Football (CAF) and world governing body FIFA – particularly if Senegal declare Mane fit for Sunday's quarter-final.

"If football wants to be taken seriously when it comes to concussion, it simply must take action to enforce and strengthen its protocols."

In the Premier League, concussion substitutes have been introduced that enable teams to take a player off if they have sustained a head injury, without giving up one of their three allocated changes.

Neither FIFA nor CAF had commented on the incident at the time of publication.

Bayern Munich will do "everything" to keep Robert Lewandowski for "as long as possible", but Niklas Sule is set to leave the club at the end of the season.

Lewandowski's contract expires at the end of 2022-23 and there have been suggestions Bayern could look to move the Poland star on this year to free up room for Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland.

That is despite the 33-year-old having just won The Best FIFA Men's Player Award for the second year running, his 34 goals in all competitions this season at least 10 more than any other player in Europe's top five leagues.

Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn suggested on Wednesday that the Bundesliga champions have no plans to let Lewandowski leave.

"He is an absolute phenomenon," Kahn told reporters. "Not just for the goals he constantly scores but for the level at which he has been playing for years.

"Of course, we will try to keep Robert with us. He's a kind of insurance for us, with his way of playing football. We will do everything we can to have Robert with us for as long as possible."

 

Sule, however, appears destined to leave the Allianz Arena after rejecting Bayern's offer of a new contract.

The centre-back, 26, has missed just two games in the Bundesliga this season and is reportedly of interest to Chelsea and Newcastle United, who could offer greater salaries.

"Negotiations with Niklas have dragged on for a very long time," Kahn said.

"We made him an offer, but he didn't accept it, as he told us. I think [club president] Herbert Hainer wanted to leave the back door a little ajar.

"Now we know what the situation is. This has happened over the past few days. I think you have to take into account that there are a lot of conversations going on. At some point, a player makes his decision.

"I think it was a very good offer. We have economic limits within which we must move. He's one of the best central defenders out there right now. I think we showed him that appreciation.

"Ultimately, it's the player's decision."

When asked if Bayern would look to sign a replacement, Kahn added: "We always look at all the options. We have a lot of options when it comes to the centre-back position.

"We have Lucas Hernandez in central defence, an excellent centre-back in [Dayot] Upamecano, young talent in Tanguy Nianzou. [Benjamin] Pavard can also play there."

 

Brazil duo Neymar and Vinicius Jr could thrive in the same starting XI, despite both forwards preferring to play in the same position, according to Juninho.

While Neymar is out injured, Vinicius has been called up for Brazil's World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Paraguay over the coming week.

Vinicius has only made nine appearances for Brazil and is yet to score for his country, only starting twice – against Chile in September and Argentina in November respectively.

Up until this season, the Real Madrid winger had struggled for consistency, but under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti, he has thrived for Los Blancos.

Only Karim Benzema (33) has more direct goal contributions for Madrid in all competitions than Vinicius, who has scored 15 times and provided eight assists.

 

Neymar, meanwhile, has had another stuttering season with Paris Saint-Germain, making just 14 appearances in all competitions and completing 90 minutes only nine times.

However, should he be fit, Neymar will no doubt be Brazil's main man heading to Qatar in November.

With Vinicius in such fine form, though, his place in Tite's squad also seems a certainty, and asked if the attackers - who both play predominantly from the left wing in a 4-3-3 formation - could feature together, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) director Juninho believes there is no reason why not.

"The two of them can play together," Juninho told Spanish radio show El Larguero.

"Vinicius shows his quality at Madrid and is beginning to show it for the national team now.

"He's improving every game. Now he's been playing very well for a while.

"Like [Philippe] Coutinho or [Lucas] Paqueta, they can also play together."

Juninho may be convinced Neymar and Vinicius fit into the same side, but neither would be suited to playing in a central role in Tite's preferred 4-3-3 system, while both are at their best when given the freedom to drift inside from the left, rather than the right.

 

Neymar is having a poor season in terms of end product. He has only scored three goals (and one of those was a penalty) and provided as many assists, while he has also underperformed his expected goals (xG) of 4.3, suggesting his finishing has been below par.

Vinicius, on the other hand, has outperformed his xG (12), averaging a goal every 169 minutes for Madrid.

The 21-year-old has also created 64 chances in comparison to Neymar's 28. However, when assessed per 90 minutes, the former Barcelona star crafts 2.1 opportunities, which is not far behind Vinicius' 2.3.

Neymar is also a more proficient dribbler, completing 3.6 dribbles per 90 minutes in comparison to Vinicius' 3.4, while he also creates 0.5 big chances per 90, as opposed to the Madrid man's 1.6.

Anthony Martial explained his reason for leaving Manchester United on loan is that he wants to "enjoy football again".

Sevilla announced the temporary signing of the France international on Tuesday, with Martial moving to LaLiga until the end of the season.

While the finances behind the deal have not been revealed, it was reported that it will cost Sevilla roughly €6million, a fee that combines Martial's salary and a loan fee.

Sevilla sporting director Monchi did appear to confirm Martial took a pay cut to get the deal over the line, as United apparently wanted the forward's reported £240,000-a-week (€287,000) wages covered in full.

United interim boss Ralf Rangnick revealed last month that Martial wanted out after struggling for first-team football – he has played the full 90 minutes of a game only once this season and featured for just eight minutes since Rangnick's first game in early December.

Martial considers finding enjoyment again to be his priority.

"For me, it was just about the feeling I had with the manager [Julen Lopetegui], and I decided that at the moment I wanted to come to Sevilla," he told Sevilla's media channels.

"I spoke with him [Lopetegui] a few times, he was very excited to see me coming here to play.

"For me, it's a good club. Whatever, it's not just about money, it's to play and enjoy. That's it, that's why I chose to come here: to play and enjoy football again.

"I feel excited, it's a good club in Spain. I come to help and do a great job. I know they have good players, I'm just coming to help, give my best and try to win a trophy for the fans."

During a behind-the-scenes video of Martial's arrival and introduction to the club, Monchi thanked the striker for making the move happen.

"Thank you, in front of the president and vice president, for the effort you made to come here," he said.

"For us, it's important that a player wants to come here, but even more so that they want to come so much they make some economic sacrifices. It's an honour for us."

Martial could make his Sevilla debut against Osasuna after the international break.

He joins the club second in LaLiga and just four points behind leaders Real Madrid, with Lopetegui's men hoping to defy the odds by claiming a first league title since 1945-46.

They also remain in Europe and next month face Dinamo Zagreb in the knockout round play-offs of the Europa League, the final of which is to be held in Sevilla's Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in May.

Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) director Juninho has confirmed Brazil will not release Real Madrid players before the end of the international break.

South American teams are in World Cup qualifying action over the coming week, with FIFA having inserted an extra international window into this season's calendar to make up for time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brazil have already qualified for this year's World Cup in Qatar and sit top of the CONMEBOL standings on 35 points.

They face Ecuador on Thursday and Paraguay on February 1. 

Madrid, meanwhile, have a Copa del Rey quarter-final against Athletic on February 3.

Four Madrid players – Casemiro, Eder Militao, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior – have been called up for Brazil.

However, Juninho insisted that even if the players do not feature in each of Brazil's games, they will remain with the national team until February 2 when the international window ends, meaning there is little chance of Los Blancos having the quartet available for the trip to San Mames.

"We are not going to release the players," Juninho told Spanish radio show El Larguero.

"The players have to be with us until the end of the FIFA period, on February 2. Depending on how they play the first match [we will] discuss whether or not they play the second.

"They will be with us until the end. We are not willing to release them. We cannot set a precedent. We have had requests from other clubs.

"We have a few days with the players. We must take advantage of this year now that the preparation for the World Cup has begun."

Juninho stressed Brazil have turned down Madrid's requests on the grounds of fairness to other teams.

"We can't, it's not that we don't want to," he added.

"In Tite's management it has never happened. That is not the situation, we understand the situation of the clubs. It has happened because of the pandemic. Before, there was no January date. It is the situation that was forced on us.

"We have a very good relationship with the clubs. We always talk cordially. [Brazil coach] Tite has explained the situation to Ancelotti. 

"It was in a good tone. They understood our situation and I think they haven't had any problems."

Asked if Tite had discussed the issue with the players in question, Juninho said: "I guess Tite has talked to them and made the situation very clear.

"The October [2022] dates were cancelled and we only have a week to prepare for the World Cup [in November]. There is only one week for Tite to be with the players and see how they are. The clubs understand that.

"I also spoke with [Paris Saint-Germain director] Leonardo and the English clubs on other occasions with the same problems."

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