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6 things to watch during jam-packed World Cup qualifying window

Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is approaching its climax. The most exciting international window of the World Cup cycle is here, with a multitude of berths in this year’s tournament to be decided over the next week. Below, we dissect the biggest storylines to watch during a jam-packed slate of qualifying action across the globe.


Italy, Portugal on collision course?

Claudio Villa / Getty Images Sport / Getty

At least one soccer-crazed European nation is guaranteed to be left bitterly disappointed next week – or perhaps even earlier.

Italy and Portugal, winners of the last two European Championships, both failed to secure automatic qualification for this year’s tournament, and, almost inevitably, were drawn in the same bracket for UEFA’s qualifying playoffs. Should the Azzurri and Selecao win their respective “Path C” semifinals on Thursday – against North Macedonia and Turkey, respectively – they’ll meet in a one-off clash on March 29 for a ticket to Qatar.

Italy infamously failed to reach the 2018 World Cup after losing a playoff to Sweden. Missing that event was crushing. Missing two in a row would be incomprehensible. Portugal, meanwhile, is looking to extend its streak after appearing in 11 consecutive major competitions; at 37 years old, this is almost certainly Cristiano Ronaldo’s final opportunity to represent his country on the grandest stage.

Something has to give.

Both teams go into the playoffs with serious concerns, too. Italy is without electric winger Federico Chiesa due to a long-term knee injury, while celebrated defensive lynchpins Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are dealing with muscle problems that could keep them sidelined. Portugal, meanwhile, doesn’t have first-choice center-backs Ruben Dias and Pepe, while Joao Cancelo is suspended for the semifinal against Turkey.

Ever since the playoff draw was made in November, Italy and Portugal were penciled in as locks to reach the final and put on a show-stopping encounter. The closer we get to the semis, though, the more vulnerable both look.

North Macedonia versus Turkey for the right to play in Qatar? Don’t rule it out.


History beckons for Canada

Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Canada’s men’s national team only needs two points from its final three qualifiers to secure its first appearance at the World Cup since 1986. But qualifying isn’t enough. Canada is hoping to finish in first place in CONCACAF’s regional standings, a feat that seemed impossible just a few years ago.

There are many reasons for Canada’s rapid ascent to 33rd in FIFA’s world rankings – Jonathan David’s all-around scoring, Alphonso Davies’ supporting play, Alistair Johnston’s no-nonsense defending – but the players agree head coach John Herdman has made the biggest difference.

Herdman left Canada’s women’s team to revitalize the men’s in January 2018, inheriting a broken team that floundered under predecessor Octavio Zambrano. Two fights broke out at the start of Herdman’s tenure, leading the 46-year-old to issue a stern warning.

“I said, ‘Unless you’re willing to change this, this team’s going nowhere,'” Herdman recounted recently.

Changes were made, and the men’s side became whole again. With the help of some of the best players Canada has ever produced – notably Davies, who plays for Bayern Munich, and David, Lille’s top scorer – it’s now the best team in CONCACAF. It’s yet to lose in World Cup qualifying, going 17 matches unbeaten, and has come away with historic wins against the United States and Mexico. Having finished 2021 with 53 goals in 18 contests – more than any other national team in the calendar year – Canada is closer than ever to joining the world’s best in Qatar.

United States makes amends

John Todd/ISI Photos / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Since becoming head coach in December 2018, Gregg Berhalter has tried to make fans forget about the day the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup; a 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago forced the Americans to clean house, with Berhalter, a respected coach with Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, tapped to spearhead the movement.

Berhalter’s arrival didn’t come without controversy. Until recently, his brother, Jay, had served as U.S. Soccer’s chief commercial officer, raising questions about potential nepotism. Berhalter silenced critics by winning the Gold Cup with the U.S. last summer, but a slow start to World Cup qualifying – including an opening draw against El Salvador – threatened to undo all of the goodwill he had accrued.

The U.S. has since steadied the ship, with teenager Ricardo Pepi scoring key goals against Honduras and Jamaica. But it still needs two wins from its final three qualifiers to secure its place in Qatar. Berhalter’s side can’t take anything for granted, especially with games in Mexico and Costa Rica looming and three star players, left-back Sergino Dest and midfielders Weston McKennie and Brenden Aaronson, out with injuries.

There is good news: Christian Pulisic, the country’s most recognizable player, is coming off a strong performance in the Champions League with Chelsea, and Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund’s 19-year-old midfielder, is back in the squad after missing the last batch of qualifiers.

Berhalter is leaning on his younger core to do what a team of veterans couldn’t in 2018.


Salah vs. Mane 2.0


Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane might just be getting sick of seeing each other at this point. After the Liverpool teammates went toe to toe in February’s Africa Cup of Nations final, they get to do it all over again, this time in a two-legged matchup with a World Cup place on the line.

Senegal prevailed at AFCON when Mane slotted home the decisive penalty in a shootout. Salah, who was slated to step up for Egypt’s fifth attempt, never got the chance. He’ll have an opportunity to heal that wound.

The colossal tilt headlines what should be a fascinating final round of qualifying in Africa, which is allotted five World Cup spots. The winners of the following doubleheaders will be in Qatar come November:

  • Egypt vs. Senegal
  • Cameroon vs. Algeria
  • Ghana vs. Nigeria
  • DR Congo vs. Morocco
  • Mali vs. Tunisia

The first legs are all slated for March 25. The decisive return fixtures go down on March 29.


Almighty dogfight in South America

Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images Sport / Getty

There’s always at least one notable absentee at every World Cup. Whether it’s injuries, an extended run of bad form, or plain old bad luck, some of the proverbial heavy hitters falter every four years. It’s rare that three of the top teams within the same confederation all fall on their faces together, but that’s a very real possibility in South America right now.

Uruguay, Chile, and Colombia are in an engrossing scrap – along with Peru – to secure qualification with two matches remaining in qualifying; CONMEBOL sends four nations directly to the World Cup, while the fifth-place finisher will have to settle for an intercontinental playoff against a team from Asia.

With Ecuador on the brink of joining already qualified Brazil and Argentina, that essentially leaves four teams fighting for one automatic berth and the playoff spot. It’s desperation time.

# Nation GD Points
1 Brazil (Q) +27 39
2 Argentina (Q) +16 35
3 Ecuador (X) +10 25
4 Uruguay -3 22
5 Peru -4 21
6 Chile -1 19
7 Colombia -3 17
8 Bolivia -12 15
9 Paraguay (E) -14 13
10 Venezuela (E) -16 10
  • Q = Already qualified for World Cup
  • X = Guaranteed of at least intercontinental playoff spot
  • E = Eliminated

Colombia, in the midst of an ill-timed poor run of results, has the most ground to make up but also has the benefit of the easiest remaining schedule with a home match against Bolivia and a trip to already eliminated Venezuela.

Chile and Uruguay take on Brazil and Peru, respectively, on Thursday before closing out the window with a potentially enormous clash against one another in Santiago on March 29. The Peruvians, meanwhile, tangle with Paraguay in their final match.

Get the popcorn – and some yerba mate – ready.


Tense times for Australia

Adil Al Naimi / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Australia only has itself to blame. The Socceroos are three points adrift of an automatic spot at the World Cup, but that gap should’ve been down to one before their final third-round matches against Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Australia surrendered two leads in its last outing against Oman, adding to frustrations from when it lost late to Japan last October and gave up a lead to China the following month.

The two third-placed teams in AFC’s third round of qualifying will meet in a one-off encounter to determine who faces a CONMEBOL heavyweight in an intercontinental playoff in June.

Group A

# Nation GD Points
1 Iran (Q) +11 22
2 South Korea (Q) +9 20
3 UAE +0 9
4 Lebanon -3 6
5 Iraq -7 5
6 Syria -10 2

Q = Already qualified for World Cup

Group B

# Nation GD Points
1 Saudi Arabia +5 19
2 Japan +6 18
3 Australia +9 15
4 Oman -2 8
5 China -8 5
6 Vietnam -10 3

Though it may be slim, the Aussies still have hope. They could reel in Japan if they beat the Samurai Blue in Sydney on Thursday, setting up a grandstand finish in AFC qualifying next Tuesday.

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Premier League

3 thoughts from Saturday's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important developments and discusses the biggest talking points from Saturday’s reduced schedule in England’s top flight.

Stones is a legitimate right-back option

Maybe this is meant to be a brief thing. While Kyle Walker deals with fitness issues and new left-back Sergio Gomez settles in at the club, John Stones has appeared at right-back in some Manchester City games.

Center-backs filling in at full-back often enact a classic portrayal of the role – Ben White has overlapped Arsenal’s right-sided attacker with some success in the season’s opening weeks. Stones’ interpretation, however, seems more studied. He slides neatly into midfield alongside Rodri when City are in possession, providing protection from counter-attacks and ensuring his side dominates the ball in this area of the pitch. Stones’ extra defensive cover on the right also frees up Joao Cancelo for more attacking work down the left.

The ease with which Stones has slotted in as an inverted full-back is impressive. It also indicates that this might be the result of hard hours on the training ground as Pep Guardiola tries to formulate more tactical options for his versatile team.

Stones shrugs off Boubacar Traore Nick Potts – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

There must be a caveat from Saturday’s 3-0 win: it was Wolverhampton Wanderers. This might be the most toothless version of Wolves to play in the Premier League (even less potent than the side that scored a paltry 32 goals, yet still survived, in the 2009-10 season), and their day was made more difficult when Nathan Collins was sent off for a wild challenge on Jack Grealish.

While Stones wasn’t overworked at Molineux, he exuded confidence with the ball, linking up the backline and midfield with short passes, and dealt admirably with attacking left-back Rayan Ait-Nouri. He’d already passed a sterner test three days earlier, too. He calmly addressed Borussia Dortmund’s threat, which mostly came down his flank, before stepping upfield to unleash a vicious strike that turned the tide of the Champions League group-stage fixture.

And Stones isn’t only a viable choice at right-back. He took sole ownership of No. 6 duties when Rodri was substituted in the 81st minute, skipping through challenges and dictating City’s tempo with his passing. Given Kalvin Phillips’ injury issues, Stones could be asked to deputize for Rodri a few times in the coming weeks.

Newcastle’s steep learning curve

Bournemouth were largely negative in their approach at St. James’ Park, relying on last-ditch blocks, Neto’s goalkeeping, and the woodwork to keep Newcastle United at bay. In the final 10 minutes of the first half alone, the Cherries headed or smashed away seven clearances.

This is what the “big six” deal with most weeks. The Magpies will need to get used to it. They’ve quickly become one of the division’s strongest teams following their Saudi-backed takeover, so opponents have adapted accordingly. The most pragmatic way for bottom-half sides to approach Newcastle matches is to pack bodies in front of their creative players and then try to inflict damage on the break.

Miguel Almiron is most dangerous in counter-attacks LINDSEY PARNABY / AFP / Getty

Newcastle’s frustrations were beginning to show when Bournemouth took the lead through Philip Billing in the 62nd minute, and they could only respond via Alexander Isak’s successful penalty. Eddie Howe’s side lacked invention throughout and can’t expect a huge uptick in performance when the entertaining yet inconsistent Allan Saint-Maximin returns from injury. The majority of Howe’s players appear to lack the guile to unpick low blocks, and the men he called off the bench – Jacob Murphy, Sean Longstaff, and Chris Wood – seemed to be a concession of that weakness. Rather than patiently adhering to their game plan, Newcastle started to play a more direct, cross-heavy game as their desperation grew.

The next stage in Newcastle’s transformation has to be signing better playmakers. Miguel Almiron and Ryan Fraser simply don’t thrive when their team has the most possession – they’re most dangerous in counter-attacks, not against deep-lying defenses – and back-to-back home draws against Crystal Palace and Bournemouth isn’t the kind of form that earns top-four finishes.

At long last, the Son is out

“I like that he’s a bit angry,” Antonio Conte said about Son Heung-Min’s goal drought before Leicester City’s visit, adding, “he wants to try to change it.”

Son was last season’s true top scorer. Granted, he did share the Golden Boot with Mohamed Salah, but the Liverpool forward boosted his 23-goal haul with five penalties. Son didn’t attempt any throughout Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League campaign, leaving that responsibility to Harry Kane, so reaching his overall tally was an undeniably more impressive feat than Salah’s.

The South Korean scored 12 of his goals over his final 10 league appearances of last term, helping Spurs clinch the fourth Champions League place at Arsenal’s expense. He was irresistible, marking a stark contrast to his return of no goals from the opening eight matches of this season (in all competitions). Son’s alarming dip in productivity threatened to harm his side’s ambitions for the campaign.

What an emphatic way to vanquish those concerns.

Just like that, Son is back on form ISABEL INFANTES / AFP / Getty

It took around 27 minutes for Son to bag a hat-trick after his introduction on Saturday, making him the first Tottenham substitute to record a Premier League treble. A fine Hugo Lloris save helped Spurs cling on to their one-goal advantage moments before Son was brought on, but the benched forward soon helped his side to a 6-2 victory.

Son’s opening goal wasn’t the fortuitous, scruffy close-range finish that people tend to associate with a player overcoming a bad run. It was a quintessential Son strike: a powerful run followed by an unstoppable right-footed smash into the top corner from 25 yards. His second was another effort plucked from the archives as he shifted the ball onto his left foot before bending it into the far corner from a near-identical spot as his first goal.

Son rounded off his treble following an exceptionally timed run. His return to form should strike fear into Tottenham’s rivals: One of the top flight’s deadliest strikers is “angry” and firing, and the proud Korean is also desperate to hit prime condition in time for his country’s tough group-stage matches at this winter’s World Cup.

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Premier League

2022 World Cup kits: Bright orange for Netherlands, vibrant look for Brazil

Nike released its line of World Cup jerseys for 12 of its 13 teams Thursday, bringing out vivid colors and an array of designs that characterize the countries they represent.

Nike is the latest manufacturer to reveal outfits for the 2022 World Cup, which begins Nov. 20 in Qatar. Adidas, which supplies seven countries, and Puma, which services six, unveiled their lineups in August.

Fans have criticized the manufacturers for using cookie-cutter designs. Puma came under intense criticism after releasing a lineup of jerseys with the same template, and a number of people have already signed a petition online to protest Nike’s USMNT jersey.

England, the only World Cup team in Nike’s stable that’s yet to officially unveil its uniforms, will reveal its collection on Sept. 21, after the country completes a period of mourning over the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Here’s a closer look at the jerseys Nike revealed Thursday.


(Courtesy: Nike)

Australia’s home shirt takes inspiration from the sandy beaches of the Outback, using a noisy design to convey the coastal vibes that make the country such a hot destination for surfers and oceanographers.


(Courtesy: Nike)

Brazil’s home shirt is as yellow as ever. Complete with bright green details and a classic collar, it’s a stunning representation of the vibrant side of Brazilian life. The jersey also contains hidden symbols, including the nation’s flag.


(Courtesy: Nike)

Canada will wear the same shirts that gave it luck during its historic World Cup qualifying campaign.


(Courtesy: Nike)

Croatia’s home shirt is unmistakable. But Luka Modric and Co. will wear a variation of the usual chequered pattern we’ve all come to expect from the Balkan outfit.


(Courtesy: Nike)

France dazzles with one of the best collections of the bunch. The away kit features national imagery, while a golden cockerel stands out against the home shirt’s deep blue tone.

Korea Republic

(Courtesy: Nike)

South Korea summons the inner tiger in this year’s home shirt. The fiery red design, replete with tiger-stripe graphics, gives off a powerful vibe.

The Netherlands

(Courtesy: Nike)

Talk about Orange fever. With perhaps its boldest design in decades, the Netherlands will hit the pitch with a near-gold ensemble that catches the eye. The home shirt also contains a number of subtle symbols and a reference to the country’s Total Football tactics.


(Courtesy: Nike)

Poland’s home kit features a feathery design on each sleeve, paying homage to the white eagle that’s come to symbolize strength and solidarity in the eastern European nation.


(Courtesy: Nike)

Portugal’s collection isn’t exactly a smash hit. The home shirt includes a diagonal separation of its national colors and aims to mimic the flag as it would sit against the body. The away edition features an off-white tone that offers some separation from the rest of the World Cup’s white uniforms.


(Courtesy: Nike)

Qatar’s logo sits prominently on both of its kits. Classic maroon shading defines the home edition, and the away’s sandy design aims to capture the coastal contours of the Gulf nation.

Saudi Arabia

(Courtesy: Nike)

Saudi Arabia truly embraces its national colors. The away shirt comes with a dark green design that packs punch.

United States

(Courtesy: Nike)

Fans and players aren’t pleased with Nike’s creative input on the United States’ World Cup collection. “We just as angry as y’all!!!” forward Tim Weah wrote last month. “Tried to tell them,” midfielder Weston McKennie added.

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Premier League

5 thoughts from Tuesday's Champions League action

The Champions League rumbles on with Matchday 2 this week. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.

Son becoming a big problem for Conte

Son Heung-Min has now gone eight games without a goal, and if his performance in Tottenham Hotspur’s surprising 2-0 defeat to Sporting CP on Tuesday is any indication, the drought will continue for some time.

Many expected Son to take his game to the next level, and rightfully so. The South Korean forward finished the 2021-22 Premier League season with 12 goals in his final 10 appearances, enough to earn him a share of the Golden Boot award. But his form in front of goal since the start of August has dropped dramatically. Son’s failed to convert any of his 18 attempts on goal, and only half of those have been on target.

Son didn’t register a single shot Tuesday against Sporting ‘keeper Antonio Adan, and one of his only two touches in the penalty area came from an offside position. He just couldn’t connect with the rest of his teammates. Clearly frustrated, Spurs boss Antonio Conte replaced him after 72 minutes – and Son’s lucky he even lasted that long.

Soccrates Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The 30-year-old’s substitute Dejan Kulusevski showed much more attacking impetus in the final quarter of an hour, appearing on the left and right to create chances. With Richarlison also comfortable playing on the left wing, Son’s place in Conte’s starting lineup could, and probably should, come under scrutiny.

Richarlison has played extremely well in his limited time on the pitch, showing greater compatibility with Harry Kane and the will to get into scoring positions. Initially signed to provide depth, the Brazilian forward could now earn a significant run in the team, with Kane up front and Kulusevski returning to his usual place on the right. That spells trouble for Son, whose native South Korea is banking on him to lead the way in the World Cup. But Conte can’t afford to wait for anyone – not even one of the Premier League’s best players.

That’s more like it, Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp got the response he demanded.

In a game Liverpool desperately needed to win after opening their Champions League campaign with an embarrassing defeat, Klopp’s men delivered a strong defensive performance on their way to beating Ajax 2-1 and picking up their first three points of the tournament.

The result offered a huge boost for a Liverpool side that was left reeling after last week’s abysmal performance in Italy.

In the aftermath of the 4-1 loss to Napoli, there was plenty of uncertainty about the Reds’ ability to rebound from what Klopp described as the team’s “worst” performance since his arrival. Klopp delivered “four or five days of absolute truth” to his struggling squad.

Although Liverpool’s route to victory was anything but direct, the rallying cry seemingly worked. After Mohamed Salah’s first-half goal, poor play from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Virgil van Dijk was largely responsible for Ajax’s equalizer before halftime. The Reds’ attack went sterile after the break until unlikely hero Joel Matip’s 89th-minute winner sent Anfield into a frenzy.

Although Liverpool have a ways to go before they’re comparable to the outfit that dazzled last season, Tuesday’s victory was undoubtedly a relief for a club that’s underachieved for much of the season so far.

When heavyweights collide

That was fun.

Bayern Munich and Barcelona, familiar foes in recent seasons, delivered a rousing spectacle in Bavaria on Tuesday. It was only a group-stage affair, but the almost unhinged intensity and elite skill on display were befitting of a final. Both teams pressed fiercely, trying to play on the front foot and not allow their illustrious opposition any time to breathe. Tackles were flying, and bodies were often strewn across the pitch as the two sides went blow-for-blow, racing up and down the field and exchanging rapid attacks peppered with quick, clever passing sequences and exquisite dribbling.

Alphonso Davies and the rejuvenated Ousmane Dembele – and fellow winger Raphinha – engaged in a series of explosive tussles that were as entertaining as the actual match itself. A game within the game. Teenage midfielders Pedri and Gavi were two standout players in the first half as Barcelona, looking to regain their status as Europe’s elite footballing institution, played with the incisiveness, inventiveness, and swagger of their peak years. The club’s financial future may be tenuous, but things look bright on the pitch.

But Bayern, despite still looking vulnerable defensively when put under pressure, didn’t crack. Julian Nagelsmann’s decision to introduce Leon Goretzka to begin the second half was vital, and the German juggernaut helped turn the tide in his side’s eventual 2-0 victory.

“In the first half we had a lot of chances to score, and when you forgive so much against a team like this, you end up paying for it,” Pedri, wise beyond his years, said following the defeat.

Those ebbs and flows are the hallmarks of memorable Champions League nights.

The group stage of Europe’s premier club competition has been increasingly neutered as the gulf between football’s wealthy elite and everyone else has continued to grow over the years, making it more difficult for Cinderella stories to develop. But Tuesday’s clash at the Allianz Arena was a reminder of everything that’s still good about the tournament. When heavyweights collide, it’s still the most riveting show around.

Lewandowski’s rare off night

Captivating as Tuesday’s match in Bavaria was, it didn’t quite go according to plan for Robert Lewandowski.

The prolific Pole, who scored 344 goals in 375 Bayern appearances before departing for Barcelona this past summer, was given a predominantly warm reception upon his return. But a smattering of boos emanated from a fan base that isn’t totally at peace with the acrimonious nature of Lewandowski’s departure. Not quite hostile, but there was tension in the air.

“I think for Lewy, it was really an emotional game to come back,” said Bayern captain Manuel Neuer after the match. It’s impossible to know if that harmed the forward – even the most accomplished veterans can get butterflies – but whatever the reason, Lewandowski was just slightly off at the Allianz Arena. A rare sight over the years.

The 34-year-old spurned two glorious opportunities in the first half, whistling a volley just over the crossbar from inside the box before sending a close-range header at the back post right into Neuer’s chest. Another good chance went begging when Noussair Mazraoui made a last-ditch block late in the first half. From there, Bayern’s defenders corralled him, and whenever Barca did scamper forward menacingly, Lewandowski couldn’t find the right timing and connect with his teammates.

Lewandowski had nine goals in his first six games with Barcelona going into Tuesday’s encounter, but his dream start to the season ended with a thud in the one match he was surely more excited about than any other.

What’s happening in Group B!?

This comes with the caveat that it’s still very early – we’re only two games into this campaign’s Champions League, after all. But Group B, against all odds, is already shaping up to be a wild ride.

Club Brugge sit atop the quartet with a perfect record after waltzing into the Estadio do Dragao, a typically intimidating venue, and crushing FC Porto on Tuesday. Despite losing Charles De Ketelaere over the summer, the Belgian club certainly wasn’t lacking an attacking spark in its 4-0 rout.


The surprises didn’t stop there, though, as Bayer Leverkusen put their woeful early-season form behind them to claim a 2-0 win against overwhelming group favorites Atletico Madrid. Leverkusen went into the match having lost six of their eight games in all competitions to begin the new campaign, so naturally, they shut down Diego Simeone’s side. Throw all reason out the window.

Group B, viewed after the draw as lacking much intrigue or excitement, is flipping the script.

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