There is nothing in golf quite like The Masters.

Arguably the most prestigious of the majors, Augusta National becomes the centre of the sporting world once more over the weekend, as the famous green jacket goes up for grabs again.

In 1997, Tiger Woods won his first major when he triumphed in Georgia, and 25 years on he is set to make a sensational comeback from injury.

But Woods is not the only name to look out for.

 

The favourites

Let's start from the top. Scottie Scheffler is the world's new number one and he heads into the weekend on the back of three victories in his last five events, having not finished worse than T-19th in his six major appearances since 2020.

Scheffler said he has been resting up at home ahead of travelling to Augusta, where he joked he has already been brought down a peg or two.

He told Sky Sports: "I've been humbled a couple of times already, showing up here. The guy who picked me up in the cart this morning called me Xander, so that brought me down to earth real quick! It's been great, really looking forward to this week."

The Xander in question is Xander Schauffele. He finished T3 last year, three shots back from the champion Hideki Matsuyama, and was looking good on his final round until he sent a ball into the water on the 16th, but he won gold at the Tokyo Olympics and comes into the tournament in strong form.

Reigning champion Matsuyama cast doubt over his participation when he withdrew from the Texas Open with a neck problem, meanwhile, which may hinder his title defence.

 

Brooks Koepka has won four majors, but did not make the cut last year and will be out to put that right this time around, having defeated Jon Rahm in the WGC-Match Play last 16. 

Rahm has finished in the top 10 in each of his last four Masters appearances. However, the Spaniard has not won a tournament since triumphing in the US Open last year, but did secure a place in the top 10 in all four of last year's majors.

Dustin Johnson failed to make the cut in 2021 in a torrid title defence. He had dropped out of the top 10 up until an impressive performance at the WGC-Match Play moved him up to number eight, and he'll be determined to rekindle the form that saw him clinch the green jacket in 2020.

Viktor Hovland is ranked fourth in the world, though his weak chipping game may prove costly to his chances at Augusta, while Collin Morikawa cannot be discounted for a third major title and Justin Thomas will be out to win a second major having won the US PGA Championship in 2017.

 

The outsiders

Augusta is where golfers can shoot to stardom over the course of four spectacular days, and there will be plenty of the field who fancy their chances despite not being among the bookmakers' favourites.

One such player capable of a challenge is Cameron Smith. The Australian is ranked at a career-high six, won the Players' Championship last month and has finished inside the top 10 in three of the last four Masters.

Will Zalatoris, meanwhile, comes into the weekend with the best SG (strokes gained, which compares a player's score to the field average) tee-to-green* statistics on the PGA Tour this season, with his 1.767 average just edging out Thomas, and he came second on his Masters debut in 2021.

Zalatoris only has one pro win to his name so far but the 25-year-old has largely impressed at the majors. He finished T2 in 2021 at Augusta and T8 in last year's PGA Championship, while recording a T6 finish in the 2020 US Open.

Rory McIlroy's Masters record is frustrating. It is the only major the former world number one has not yet won. He finished in the top 10 six times between 2014 and 2020 before missing the cut last year, and now he'll have another stab at sealing a career Grand Slam, though his best finish this season has been third in the Dubai Desert Classic.

 

Only five players have previously completed a clean sweep of the majors, and McIlroy has not won one of the big four events since 2014.

Russell Henley will feature for the first time since 2018 after 12 top 10 finishes in the past year, and he has finished in the top 25 at Augusta three times, while Bryson DeChambeau is going to compete despite missing a chunk of the season with a hip problem. He finished T46 on three-over-par in 2021.

Marc Leishman finished fifth a year ago, improving on T13 from 2020, and Sergio Garcia will at least hope to make the cut for the first time since he won in 2017. Perhaps if the Spaniard can just make the weekend, he can go all the way again?

 

The return of the king

As far as comeback stories go in sport, Woods has already provided one of the very best.

In 2019, against all odds following years of back issues and surgery to fix the problems, Woods won The Masters for a fifth time in his illustrious career, taking his total of major victories to 15. He trails only Jack Nicklaus in that regard.

But this comeback might just top the lot.

The 46-year-old admitted he cheated death in a major single-car crash in February 2021, which left him with serious leg and foot injuries. Woods was unable to walk unaided for several months and has not played serious golf since, but he is all set for a remarkable return on the biggest stage of them all.

It will be his first appearance in any tournament since he played at Augusta in November 2020. Since winning his maiden major a quarter of a century ago, Woods has claimed nine more major titles than any other player, while he is one of only three players to win successive Masters titles (2001 and 2002).

Woods has never failed to make the cut in 21 appearances, and even if he does not challenge at the top of the leaderboard this time around (though you would not put it past him) his comeback is already the story of the weekend.

 

Great art will typically have its back to the wall, and for an hour on Tuesday it was a great artist who stood with his back to a red wall on a rainy night in Manchester, unhappy with his lot.

A promising exhibition was turning into a soggy mess as Kevin De Bruyne had his visionary brushstrokes stripped of their customary colour, the false nine lacking his usual lustre.

But then the narrative flipped, and a 50th Champions League appearance in City colours for this wonderful Belgian footballer had its masterpiece, a finish any genuine number nine would admire from substitute Phil Foden's delicious pass. One-nil, and that was how it stayed, a fine result from a taxing evening.

City manager Pep Guardiola had joked about the perception that he can "overthink" in big games in the build-up to this tussle, and he fooled those who cooked up the team sheet that reckoned on De Bruyne occupying a wide-right midfield role.

Of course he cropped up there at times, on the left too, and at times in the centre of midfield, but De Bruyne spent just as much time as the further City man forward, chasing lost causes, closing down, doing the donkey work.

This latest landmark appearance for City – coming so soon after his 200th Premier League appearance for the leaders on Saturday – ended in triumph where it could have been frustration, or been worse.

You see, sometimes great artists do silly things, like slicing off an ear or headbutting Marco Materazzi, and when De Bruyne chopped down Joao Felix in the 34th minute to cut short an Atletico counter-attack, it looked like being a costly error.

A yellow card was surely coming, and with De Bruyne already a booking away from suspension, City would have lost him for the second leg of this tie. Referee Istvan Kovacs kept the card in his pocket and an incredulous Diego Simeone, the Atletico head coach, had to be asked to cool it by the man with the whistle. Simeone might be known for his histrionics, but this seemed eminently excusable.

De Bruyne has entered the imperial phase of his City career, with records and landmarks stacking up alongside trophies. But the Champions League is the trophy City and De Bruyne want now, and it is the obdurate brilliance of teams such as Atletico that they must find a way past to reach that goal.

When Guardiola substituted Raheem Sterling, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez in the 68th minute, bringing on Foden, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus, he called De Bruyne over to the touchline too, passing on a word or two of advice. De Bruyne had seen a free-kick well saved by Jan Oblak, but was otherwise being stifled, and when he was not being stifled he was looking thoroughly fed up in the rain.

Barely two minutes after the Pep talk and the goal arrived, local lad Foden with a pass from the gods and the finish doing it justice.

De Bruyne came into this game having made more assists in the Champions League than any other player from an English club since his City debut in the competition in September 2015. To those 17 assists – only Neymar (25), Kylian Mbappe (20) and Angel Di Maria (18) have had more – De Bruyne has now added 11 goals.

Five of his previous 10 had come from outside the box, but this was a striker's goal, running in behind and lashing into the left corner.

A head injury forced De Bruyne to abandon last season's Champions League final, and City will want to be sure he is present and correct should they get through to the showpiece again.

A tricky second leg awaits them next week at the Wanda Metropolitano, then potentially a semi-final. But De Bruyne's strike was as admirable as City's persistence against an Atletico side who repeatedly got every man back inside their final third at the behest of their strutting boss, and it was the sort of result that had the home fans at the Etihad Stadium dreaming once again.

During the international break, De Bruyne and wife Michele took 24 hours away in Paris, and it will be the French capital that stages the Champions League final in May.

City might be there. De Bruyne's time, City's time, might be coming.

It is always fascinating when polar opposites collide. 

In the Premier League, Pep Guardiola's methodical Manchester City are leading the way, up against the juggernaut of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool.

While Guardiola and Klopp are by no means cut from the same cloth, they do share similarities in their approach; relentless pressing, rapid counter-pressing and machine-like efficiency.

Yet in Diego Simeone, it is difficult to imagine an elite-level coach that contrasts with Guardiola quite so much. On Tuesday, we will see just how the styles match up.

It has been almost six years since a team coached by Guardiola went up against Simeone's Atletico Madrid, when Bayern Munich faced Los Colchoneros in the Champions League semi-finals.

Simeone triumphed on that occasion, albeit on away goals. Atleti went on to lose to city rivals Real Madrid in the final, while Guardiola has only been further in UEFA's competition once since then – last season, when City lost to Chelsea in the final in Porto.

Indeed, only three times in total have Simeone and Guardiola gone up against each other. Pep holds the edge in terms of wins (at least on the night), 2-1, with his Barcelona side seeing off Atleti 2-1 in LaLiga in February 2012, during his final season at Camp Nou.

Another two games will be added to that head-to-head record over the coming weeks in a Champions League quarter-final tie that represents a true clash of styles.

Possession obsession

Guardiola's death by a thousand cuts approach has yielded unprecedented success. City are a joy to watch at their best. Slick, swift, sublime. Everything you would associate with a team at the very top of the game.

As has been the case throughout his managerial career, Guardiola wants to dominate possession, control the opposition by simply not allowing them to have the ball and, if they do have it, then you can bet his team will win it back within seconds, or commit a timely foul (Fernandinho, anyone?).

Just taking this season into account, City average 66.9 per cent possession across all competitions, while they have attempted 30,155 passes, completing 27,067 (at an average of 601 successful passes per game).

Simeone is far less concerned with his side having the ball, but instead the focus is on staying compact and robust defensively, drawing a mistake – a stray pass, a heavy touch – out of the opposition and pouncing. And in relative terms, his approach has been just as successful.

Not that this is Simeone's approach across the board. Atleti have played some wonderful football during his tenure too, and had some sensational attacking players. Indeed, their current frontline options of Joao Felix, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa and Matheus Cunha is the envy of most teams.

Yet this season, Atleti average only 48.8 per cent possession across 41 matches. They have completed 14,533 passes, with 7,317 of these coming in the opponents' half. In comparison, City have registered almost 16,000 successful passes in opposition territory.

However, the difference is not so stark when it comes to balls played into the box, with City's 1,730 accounting for 11 per cent of their passes in the opposition half. That value jumps to 16.5 per cent for Atleti (1,209).

Simeone's men get a higher proportion of their passes in the other team's half into the area, though City have had 1,870 touches in the opposition box, with Atleti managing 964.

In the league alone, City have had 715 sequences involving 10 or more passes. In LaLiga, Atleti have had just 278.

City's possession does, of course, lead to shots – 837 of them this season in total. That dwarves Atleti's 490, though the Spanish side do have a better conversion rate (14.7 compared to 13.5).

Fierce off the ball

One similarity when it comes to Guardiola and Simeone is their desire to be aggressive in their approach to winning the ball back. While Guardiola's team will swarm an opposing player, Simeone's men will be tenacious and full-blooded.

So far this season, Atletico players have gone into 4,263 duels, while City have attempted 3,848. However, the success rate is closer, with the Spanish champions winning 52 per cent, and City 51.1.

Another major difference, however, is how City press.

In the Premier League, only Liverpool (354) and Brighton and Hove Albion (290) have forced more high turnovers than City (285), and Guardiola's side rank second when it comes to the average starting distance of their attacks from their own goal (45.1 metres).

When it comes to passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), a measurement to quantify the extent and aggression of high presses, City rank joint-second, along with Liverpool, in the Premier League, with their 9.9 only bettered by Leeds United's 9.5.

Atleti's 207 high turnovers ranks ninth in LaLiga. However, their seven goals from direct attacks is joint-best in Spain's top tier. City have scored four times from such breaks this term.

Solidity comes first

This season, admittedly, Atleti have been unusually sloppy at the back, conceding 50 times and keeping 12 clean sheets, which is 17 more and 10 fewer than City, respectively.

Tracked over the previous five full seasons, however (since Guardiola joined City in 2016), only once have Atleti conceded more times than City, in 2018-19 (44 to 39).

Guardiola's teams take more risks in possession and City have made 42 errors leading to goals across his time at the club. It's been worth the pay off, but Simeone's more conservative approach has yielded just 21 such mistakes in the same timeframe.

Defensive grit is the bedrock of Simeone's success, and since the start of 2016-17, Atleti have kept 144 clean sheets. Yet, it is City who top the charts across Europe's top five leagues, with an outstanding 152.

Given City have scored 113 goals already this season – 41 more than Atleti – perhaps this quarter-final will not quite be as even as it might have been in seasons gone by, and it is the side from Manchester who must be considered favourites.

But, as proved with their clinical display at Old Trafford in the round of 16, Atleti still have the ability to frustrate and pick their moments to shine in attack. 

This is further evidenced by Atleti's LaLiga-leading expected goals (xG) differential of +8.5 this season. In stark contrast, City have scored 6.2 goals fewer than the quality of their opportunities would have suggested.

However the tie plays out, it is sure to be an enthralling tussle.

With the final international break of the season done and dusted, it was back to Premier League action on Saturday as teams prepare for the all-important run-in.

Having not had any changes of leader since the turn of the year, it was a novelty to see it change twice in one day, albeit with a familiar look at the end as Liverpool and Manchester City both recorded wins.

Something far less routine happened at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea were clobbered by Brentford, while there was also a win for Wolves against Aston Villa and draws at Brighton and Hove Albion, Leeds and Manchester United.

Stats Perform takes a look at some key Opta facts from a selection of the day's games…

Liverpool 2-0 Watford: Jota the slotter strikes again

It was a nervy afternoon at Anfield as Liverpool looked to leapfrog City to the top of the table.

Despite a determined performance from Roy Hodgson's Hornets, a first-half header from Diogo Jota and a late penalty from Fabinho secured the three points for the Reds.

It sent Jurgen Klopp's men to the top of the Premier League for the first time since December, albeit they were back to second later on after City's own win.

Liverpool are back in the title race after having won 10 consecutive Premier League games, becoming just the second side to embark on such a run on five separate occasions after City (also five).

It was another goal for Jota, his 20th of the season, and since making his Liverpool debut in September 2020, the Portugal international has scored more headed goals (nine) than any other player for a Premier League club in all competitions.

Burnley 0-2 Manchester City: Citizens retain top spot

Despite being displaced by their rivals, City eased to victory against Sean Dyche's side to take back their top spot just a couple of hours after losing it.

First-half goals from Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan saw Pep Guardiola's men to the win, continuing their exemplary record against Burnley.

This made it 14 wins from their last 15 games against the Clarets in all competitions (D1), winning each of their last 10 by an aggregate scoreline of 34-1.

City are the only side yet to drop a single point from a winning position in the Premier League this season, winning all 23 games in which they have led. No side has ever gone through an entire Premier League campaign without dropping points when ahead before.

Aymeric Laporte made his 100th Premier League appearance, picking up his 82nd win – the most wins by a player in their first 100 games in the competition's history.

Chelsea 1-4 Brentford: Tuchel's men toppled

It has been a turbulent time for Chelsea off the field, but until now they had kept their on-field form in check.

Brentford had other ideas at Stamford Bridge as they came from 1-0 down to ease to their first victory in nine meetings against the Blues in all competitions since a 3-1 away win in the top-flight in February 1939.

Chelsea went ahead thanks to an Antonio Rudiger piledriver from 39.6 yards, which was Chelsea's longest range Premier League goal since Frank Lampard against Wigan in January 2007 (45.1 yards).

However, goals from Vitaly Janelt (two), Christian Eriksen and Yoane Wissa turned things around to make it just the second time Chelsea have conceded four or more goals in the Premier League at home to a newly promoted side (also under Thomas Tuchel in the 5-2 defeat against West Brom in April 2021).

Eriksen scored his first Premier League goal since December 2019. He has now been directly involved in eight goals (three goals, five assists) against Chelsea in the competition, with all three goals arriving at Stamford Bridge.

Manchester United 1-1 Leicester City: Ronaldo-less Red Devils' top four hopes dealt another blow

It felt like an ominous sign for United when Cristiano Ronaldo was ruled out of their game against Leicester through illness.

Ralf Rangnick's side ultimately rescued a draw having fallen behind to Kelechi Iheanacho's header, with Fred following in from a Bruno Fernandes shot, but it was still two points dropped in the race for the top four.

United have now won just one of their last six games in all competitions (D3 L2), after winning four and drawing three of the seven before that.

Fred is the seventh player to score on their 100th Premier League appearance for the Red Devils, and the first since Marcus Rashford did so, also against Leicester, in February 2019.

James Maddison laid on the assist for Iheanacho, and has now been directly involved in 21 goals in all competitions this season (13 goals, eight assists), four more than any other Leicester player; only in 2017-18 with Norwich has he been involved in more goals in a single campaign (26 – 15 goals, 11 assists).

Football is fickle. It doesn't take long for outlooks and perceptions to be flipped on their head, and nowhere is that truer right now than in LaLiga.

As recently as mid-February, Real Madrid's lead at the summit – which they have held since matchday three – was only four points over Sevilla, who themselves were 11 ahead of a Barcelona side languishing in fifth.

But as we head into Sunday's clash between Barca and Sevilla at Camp Nou, the Blaugrana know they will go up to second and above Julen Lopetegui's men in the table with a win, and they'd still have a game in hand.

Xavi has overseen a massive improvement and, following the 4-0 Clasico win prior to the international break, Barca have the opportunity to make another statement this weekend.

It's not over yet

While sympathy will be in short supply given what's been a largely excellent season for them in LaLiga, Sevilla have undoubtedly gone through a tricky period.

When Anthony Martial was brought in on loan from Manchester United in late January, it was initially seen as a move that would go one of two ways: the Frenchman was either going to be electric and give Sevilla the extra push they needed to challenge Madrid, or he would fail to get over the ineffectiveness that had begun to engulf him at Old Trafford.

Suffice to say Martial will not be back at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan next season – or at least not as a Sevilla player.

Lopetegui has had to contend with something of an injury crisis for much of the past three months, which to a certain degree makes it surprising they are only nine points off the top. Further to that, if Sevilla avoid defeat at Barca, they will set a new club record for their best unbeaten run in a single top-flight season (16 games).

 

But that stat flatters them, significantly. Of the most recent nine games in that run, Sevilla have won just twice. Five of their seven draws have come away from home against mostly mid-table opposition, plus struggling Deportivo Alaves. They've not scored more than twice in any league game since October.

As such, it's difficult to see how they can contend with a reinvigorated and in-form Barcelona this weekend – but whichever way it goes, assuming it's not a draw, there's every reason to believe Sunday's showdown could genuinely reignite a title race.

Polar opposites

While victory for Barca would propel them up to second for the first time this season, they will also still have a game in hand on Los Blancos. A nine-point deficit won't be easy to turn around over nine matches, but Madrid do still have trips to Atletico and Sevilla to traverse, and they have the added 'distraction' of the Champions League, at least for the time being.

A win for Sevilla would be momentous, not least because they've failed to get a single league success at Camp Nou since December 2002.

Such a scalp over a team that has won seven more points (from one game fewer) in 2022 could be the boost a flagging Sevilla need to finish the season strong. It would surely improve their belief ahead of Madrid's visit next month.

But at this point, Barca look far more likely to offer a threat to Madrid in the final weeks of the season, with Sevilla's slide in the second half of 2021-22 threatening to completely derail their campaign.

Frustrated by a lack of goals and an almost chronic inability to convert draws into wins, Los Nervionenses have won just four league games this year. While their lack of defeats is commendable, they've scored more than only six teams in 2022 – a group that includes each of the bottom four in the table.

 

Lopetegui has been rightly praised throughout his time at Sevilla for building a team that is extremely difficult to break down, with only Manchester City (53) bettering their 49 clean sheets across the big five leagues since his appointment in 2019, and that's obviously played a part in their unbeaten run.

But there have been numerous times in the past few months where fans have been crying out for more attacking emphasis, and it's for this reason that it's hard to imagine Lopetegui was ever truly a candidate to take over at Manchester United before he ruled himself out, even if he was genuinely on their four-man shortlist.

Whereas Barcelona, whose dealings in January really ignited something in Xavi's squad, have scored 27 goals since the turn of the year and also been tight at the back, with their seven concessions only bettered by Sevilla.

Something has to give

A potentially key aspect of Sunday's showdown will be how well Barca press. No one has scored more goals (six) than them from high turnovers in LaLiga this season, with four of those coming since Xavi's appointment.

Playing into that is the fact Sevilla like to play out from the back. This is reflected by them seeing 222 high turnovers recorded against them this season, the third most in LaLiga, but only two have led to a goal – just three teams have conceded fewer goals from such situations.

This is evidence of how effective Sevilla are regrouping, but such an approach will be risky against a Barca side in such imperious goal-scoring form and clearly useful at winning the ball back in advanced areas – Osasuna (253) are the one team with more high turnovers than the Blaugrana (248).

Turning over Madrid's lead in LaLiga will be a rather different proposition, but success on Sunday certainly won't dampen Barca's outlook.

The dust is settling following the 2022 World Cup draw, which has provided a number of subplots and talking points aplenty to discuss between now and the opening set of games on November 21.

France, placed in a group that contains Denmark, Tunisia and one of Peru or Australia, will look to avoid becoming the fifth defending champions in the past six tournaments to exit at the first hurdle.

Spain and Germany, the winners of two of the past three World Cups, face off in arguably the pick of the group games in what will be their fifth meeting in the competition and the first since La Roja's 2010 semi-final triumph.

There are some good omens for England, who are in action on the opening day of the tournament – the last time that was the case they went on to lift the trophy on home soil in 1966.

As the debate rumbles on as to which is the most interesting group this time around, and supporters of participating nations plot out their route to the latter stages, Stats Perform picks out a key stat for each team.

GROUP A – Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands

Qatar are competing in their first World Cup and will aim to avoid becoming only the second host nation to be knocked out in the first round after South Africa in 2010.

They will begin their campaign against Ecuador, who have not faced a nation from outside of the UEFA or CONCACAF regions in their previous 10 World Cup matches.

Senegal are participating in the event for a third time and are the third African Cup of Nations title holders to qualify this century after Cameroon in 2002 and Nigeria in 2014.

However, the heavyweights of the group are the Netherlands, who have won 11 of their last 14 World Cup matches when not factoring in penalty shoot-outs. Three times Oranje have reached the final; three times they have been beaten. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, of course.

GROUP B – England, Iran, United States, Scotland/Wales/Ukraine

England have progressed past the quarter-finals just once since 1966, although the most recent occasion came four years ago when losing in the semi-finals.

First up for England are Iran, who have scored nine goals in 15 World Cup matches – that goals-per-game average of 0.6 the lowest of any side to have played at least 10 times.

Back involved after missing Russia 2018, the United States will be looking to reach the knockout stages for a fourth time in their past five participations in a World Cup.

Should Wales reach the finals, the gap of 64 years between their only two finals appearances will set a record.

Scotland, who meet Ukraine in a play-off for the right to face Wales, have made more World Cup appearances (eight) without making it past the first round than any other nation.

 

GROUP C – Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland

One of three South American teams to have lifted the trophy, Argentina have made it past the first round in 12 of their past 13 appearances, the only exception being in 2002.

It would be an understatement to say that Saudi Arabia have had less success in the finals, having won only three of their previous 16 World Cup matches – albeit one of those coming against Egypt in the 2018 edition.

Mexico have reached every World Cup since missing out in 1990 and tend to do well in the group stage, having advanced to the last 16 in each of their last eight appearances.

Whereas Mexico have won five of their past six opening games, first opponents Poland have won just one of their previous eight curtain-raising fixtures and have lost the last three.

GROUP D – France, Peru/Australia/UAE, Denmark, Tunisia

France are out to become the third team, after Italy (in 1938) and Brazil (in 1962) to retain the trophy. However, the last three defending champions have fallen in the group stage.

Denmark boasted the best defensive record of any side in European qualifying and have made it out of the group stage in four of their five World Cup appearances.

That is in contrast to Tunisia, who have not made the knockout rounds in six previous attempts. The Eagles of Carthage have also not beaten a European side in 10 World Cup games (D3 L7).

Tunisia have lost 60 per cent of their World Cup games, the third-highest by a team to have played 15+ games behind Saudi Arabia (69 per cent) and possible Group D opponents Australia (63 per cent).

 

GROUP E – Spain, Costa Rica/New Zealand, Germany, Japan

Spain won the World Cup in 2010, but that is the only occasion they have reached the semi-finals in their last 13 participations. However, they have won the group in four of their last five appearances.

Germany, champions in 2014, were the first side to reach Qatar 2022 aside from the hosts, and have made it to the semi-finals in four of the five World Cups this century – the best record of any side.

After reaching the last 16 in 2018, competition regulars Japan will aim to book a place in the knockouts in back-to-back editions for the first time.

Completing arguably the toughest group is either Costa Rica or New Zealand, who meet in a play-off in June. Costa Rica have appeared at five previous World Cups, while the All Whites have made it to the finals twice before.

GROUP F – Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia

Belgium have qualified for more World Cups without winning it than any other European team, with this their 14th appearance. With much of their 'golden generation' either 30 or close to it, however, this is realistically the final chance for that batch of players to cement their names in the history books, after a third-place finish in 2018.

Roberto Martinez's team might meet Spain or Germany in the last 16 but should have little trouble in getting out of their group.

Canada are competing in the global showpiece for the first time since 1986, when they lost all three matches and failed to score.

Morocco have won just one of their last 10 World Cup games, with that coming against Scotland in 1998, while their last knockout-round appearance was in 1986.

Beaten finalists in 2018, Croatia have had a mixed time of things in the finals, having been eliminated in the group stage (three times) or reached the semis (twice) in their past five appearances.

 

GROUP G – Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon

Brazil are the competition's most successful side with five trophies and are unbeaten in their last 15 World Cup group games, winning 12 of those. Their last such defeat was against Norway in 1998.

The next side with a chance to end that long run are Serbia, who have lost seven of their last nine World Cup matches, which is the most of any European nation since 2006. They also met Brazil in the 2018 group stage.

Another team to have been drawn with Brazil and, indeed, Serbia in Russia was Switzerland. History has repeated itself this time around. The Swiss finished above Italy in qualifying to make it to their fifth successive finals. Including the European Championships, they have reached the knockout stages in their last four major tournaments, a record only Belgium and France can match.

Cameroon make up Group G. They have played more matches at the World Cup than any other African nation (23), but they have lost the last seven of those – only Mexico (nine) have ever lost more in a row.

GROUP H – Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea

Heavyweights they may be, but Portugal have won only three of their last 14 World Cup matches, each of those in the group stage. Their last knockout-round win was in the last 16 against the Netherlands in 2006. 

All being well, Cristiano Ronaldo will be featuring in a record-equalling fifth World Cup. It will almost certainly be his last, though.

Ghana's quarter-final appearance in 2010 remains the joint-best finish for an African side, alongside Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990, and they have scored in their last five World Cup games.

Uruguay controversially eliminated Ghana in the quarter-finals 12 years ago but the Black Stars have a chance for revenge here in the final round of fixtures.

First up for Uruguay, meanwhile, are South Korea, but the South American side have won their opening match at just one of their last seven World Cups.

That is good news for Son Heung-min and Co. as South Korea look to win successive finals matches for just the second time ever, having knocked out Germany four years ago.

There are just days remaining in the 2021-22 NBA regular season, but plenty is still on the line.

While the red-hot Phoenix Suns have long since secured the top seed in the Western Conference, four teams retain realistic hopes of leading the East.

Which of their superstar players are in the best shape heading into April, though?

Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check highlights the standout performers of the past month...

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

Only the Suns (.867) had a better winning percentage in March than the Boston Celtics (.786, tied with the Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks) – and much of that was due to an outstanding month from three-time All-Star Tatum.

His 32.8 points per game in March ranked third behind LeBron James (34.3) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (33.3) but significantly appeared to represent a major leap, having averaged 25.7 to that point. It was the fourth-largest increase in scoring across the NBA last month.

It figures that Tatum's three-point shooting should also be up, as he made 4.2 threes per game in March, compared to 2.8 previously.

Tatum actually saw the fourth-largest decrease in rebounding, from 8.3 per game to 6.6, but the Celtics were down in this regard across the board and it did not seem to hamper them.

Jordan Poole

As the Celtics climbed in the East, the Golden State Warriors fell in the West – but Poole did more than most to keep them competitive.

Stephen Curry's absence for the second half of the month was the chief factor in the Warriors' fading form, yet Poole is increasingly proving he can be the man to fill the void when the team's superstar guard is out.

Poole was the sole player to see a greater increase in threes made than Tatum in March (2.3 per game to 4.2), while his scoring improved from 16.1 points per game to 25.4 – second only to Drew Eubanks in this regard (4.8 to 15.0).

Those are stunning statistics but remain in line with how Poole has played all season long when Curry has been out. He has started all 12 games he has played without Curry, averaging 35.7 minutes (up from 28.6), 10.7 three-point attempts (up from 6.8), 4.3 three-point makes (up from 2.4), 5.2 assists (up from 3.5) and, admittedly, 3.3 turnovers (up from 2.2).

While taking more shots, Poole's field-goal percentage decreases slightly without Curry, yet his three-point shooting and free-throw percentage are both up, perhaps showing Golden State a future beyond the two-time MVP.

Cade Cunningham

The Detroit Pistons are nowhere near the playoff picture, but March did wonders for Cunningham's Rookie of the Year hopes.

While Evan Mobley suffered an ankle sprain that makes another appearance before the end of the regular season far from certain, Cunningham averaged 22.9 points, up on 16.0. The number one overall pick is up to 17.6 for the year, leading all rookies.

GOING COLD...

D'Angelo Russell

Russell is merely the third man on the Minnesota Timberwolves, but that looked to be evidence of the team's depth of scoring options at the start of March.

Although the T-Wolves remain one of only five teams to have had three different players average 18 or more points while playing in at least 60 games, Russell's scoring has dipped significantly from 19.4 at the end of February to 18.0 now.

Having scored just 13.1 points per game in March, Russell saw the largest decrease in the league, while his fall in three-point shots made (3.0 to 1.7) was also the greatest.

The former Warrior has too often struggled for consistency this season, but his four-point performance in the face of intense Celtics defense last weekend was especially alarming.

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

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

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

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

Qatar v Ecuador (November 21)

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

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

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

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

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

Belgium v Canada (November 23)

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

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

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

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

England v United States (November 25)

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

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

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

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

Argentina v Mexico (November 26)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain vs Germany (November 27)

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

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

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

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

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

Ghana v Uruguay (December 2)

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

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

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

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

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

This one promises to be tasty.

Italy may have been absent from Friday's 2022 World Cup draw, but they can at least provide recent examples of the pitfalls of forecasting the finals this far in advance.

At South Africa 2010, as defending champions, the Azzurri would have expected to top an apparently kind group, drawn alongside New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia. Remarkably, Marcello Lippi's side finished bottom.

Four years later, at Brazil 2014, Italy entered the 'group of death' and fared little better, coming in third ahead of fellow big-name failures England – but predicted Group D whipping boys Costa Rica sensationally topped the standings.

It is surely too early then to form firm opinions, but where is the fun in taking such a measured approach on draw day, rather than plotting potential paths to the Lusail final?

France fans will likely be doing the latter this weekend, with Les Bleus having been handed perhaps the pick of the groups, starting against one of the United Arab Emirates, Australia or Peru before facing Denmark and then Tunisia.

Of course, France are the defending champions and four of the past five holders have bowed out at the group stage, including the most recent three in a row, while Brazil in 1962 were the last team to win consecutive tournaments.

But France's title-winning campaign in 2018 saw them grouped with Australia, Peru and Denmark, giving Didier Deschamps' men some confidence they can negotiate this task, too. In the last 16, they would then face a team from Argentina's group – Lionel Messi and Co. having provided France's second-round opponents in Russia.

Brazil might also be suffering from deja vu, again meeting Serbia and Switzerland in the group stage, with Cameroon taking Costa Rica's place this time around. Like France, the Selecao topped their pool four years ago – as every eventual champion since 1986 has.

Crucially for both, in coming up against Denmark and Switzerland, they avoided Germany – surely the biggest threat in pot two. Rejuvenated under Hansi Flick, the 2014 champions provide a complication for both Spain and Belgium.

Germany followed Spain into Group E, where Japan might pose enough problems to ensure a top-two finish is no guarantee. Or perhaps Costa Rica could spring another surprise, as they will be the fourth team in the pool should they get past New Zealand in their inter-confederation play-off.

Bookmakers downgraded Germany's hopes in the minutes after the draw, but they were always likely to face elite opposition given their place in pot two. Spain were not.

And Belgium's kind group – Canada, Morocco and Croatia are their opponents – matters little given they will likely face either Spain or Germany in the second round.

England, on the face of it, have a simpler path to the quarter-finals. The Three Lions should be able to advance through a group that also includes Iran, the United States and Scotland, Ukraine or Wales – although those make for some tasty fixtures.

In the last 16, following a good period of rest, England would face opponents from Qatar's group, which was surely the result every pot one team hoped for.

Gareth Southgate would likely welcome a meeting with Qatar, but the host nation – the only debutants in 2022 – will do well to make it that far, with Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands each surely fancying their chances in a very even group.

South Africa in 2010 are the only hosts not to have progressed from the first round in World Cup history, but they could soon have company.

 

WINNERS

France – The defending champions face familiar opponents in the group and potentially in the second round, too, while they are in the same quarter of the draw as Qatar's pool and will avoid Spain, Germany, Belgium and Brazil early on.

Brazil – The tournament favourites should have no problems in the group so can settle into their campaign nicely while possible heavyweight opponents face titanic early tests.

England – The Euro 2020 finalists have been given thorough examinations by the USA, Scotland and Wales in past tournaments, but Southgate's side should advance and will back themselves again in the knockout stage.

LOSERS

Spain – La Roja have not won their World Cup opener since 2006 but simply cannot afford a slow start this time, with Germany and perhaps Belgium to play after that. From pot one, Spain's draw could not have been much worse.

Belgium – The odds for Roberto Martinez's men to go all the way drifted on Friday, as initial optimism around their group-stage draw was followed by greater inspection of a daunting path to the final.

Qatar – The hosts may be the Asian champions, but only Germany were perhaps feared more than the Netherlands from pot two, while Senegal in pot three are the African champions and have a world class operator in the form of Sadio Mane.

The draw is out, and the World Cup suddenly feels a lot closer, with the elite preparing to go for glory at Qatar 2022.

A likely last hurrah on the World Cup stage awaits superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while new names will break through and rising talent will be put to the test.

Eight nations have been champions of the tournament that was first staged in 1930, and it will be France looking to defend the title this time.

Many of us pride ourselves on remembering World Cup trivia from past tournaments, but just how good is your knowledge?

These Opta-assisted 20 questions should sort the group-stage flops from the champions of World Cup quizzing. The answers are below, but don't cheat!

The first...

1. Name the English boss who at Qatar 2022 will become the first to coach a team at both the men's and women's World Cups?

2. Gregg Berhalter will become the first man to serve as player and manager of the USA at the World Cup. He appeared at the 2002 tournament and is now boss of the American side. To which present-day Premier League club did Berhalter then belong, becoming their first World Cup player?

3. Who became the first player to score a Golden Goal winner at the World Cup when he netted for France against Paraguay in a 1998 last-16 clash?

4. In the 2018 showdown between France and Croatia, who became the first player in World Cup final history to score for both teams?

5. Qatar will attempt to become the first nation from the AFC confederation to win their first World Cup finals match. Ten of the previous 11 have lost (including Israel in 1970), but who were the team who in 1982 managed a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia?

 

The last...

6. There have been 52 hat-tricks in the tournament's history, but who was the last player to score a treble in the knockout stages of the World Cup?

7. A goalkeeper won his 159th and final international cap at the 2018 finals, when he became the oldest player to appear at the World Cup, at the age of 45 years and 161 days. He saved a penalty in a 2-1 defeat for his team against Saudi Arabia. Who was that goalkeeper and what team did he play for?

8. Ghana reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2010 and Senegal did so at the 2002 finals. But who were the first team from Africa to make it to the last eight, doing so at the 1990 finals in Italy?

9. Brazil last lost a group game at the World Cup in 1998, since when they have won 12 and drawn three games at the first-round stage. Which team beat them in that 1998 tournament?

10. Cameroon have lost each of their past seven games at the World Cup (between 2002 and 2014). Only one team have ever lost more games in a row in the competition's history – nine between 1930 and 1958. Who were that team?

The most...

11. Just Fontaine scored his 13 World Cup goals in just six games for France. The competition's all-time record scorer is Germany's Miroslav Klose, who netted 16 times for his country in how many appearances: 22, 23 or 24?

12. Who will become the only team to have appeared at all 22 editions of the World Cup when they take part in Qatar 2022?

13. Iran will be making their sixth appearance at the World Cup and have never gone beyond the group stage. Which country has made the most appearances (eight) without making it past the first round?

14. Which forward had the most goal involvements of all players in European qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, scoring 12 and assisting six times in 10 games?

15. Since 1966, only three players have completed more than 12 dribbles in a single World Cup game, with Brazil's Jairzinho achieving 13 against Paraguay in 1970 and Paul Gascoigne matching that total for England against Cameroon in 1990. Who managed the most – 15 in a game against Italy at the 1994 tournament?

 

The GOATs...

16. Which superstar, who scored eight times and provided eight assists in 21 World Cup games, also holds the record for the most handball decisions given against a player at the tournament (seven) since records began?

17. Who holds the record for the most minutes played in World Cup history, having featured in 2,216 minutes of finals action?

18. Portugal great Cristiano Ronaldo is one of only four players to score in four different World Cup tournaments. He will attempt to go one better this year, but Ronaldo currently sits alongside Pele, Klose and which other player?

19. Between them, Ronaldo (seven) and Lionel Messi (six) have managed 13 World Cup goals. How many of those goals came in the knockout rounds?

20. Ronaldo is one of just two European players to have either scored and/or assisted a goal in each of the last five major international tournaments (World Cup/European Championship). Who is the other player to have managed the feat?

 

Answers:

1. John Herdman (Canada – he managed Canada Women at the 2015 Women's World Cup)
2. Crystal Palace
3. Laurent Blanc (France)
4. Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)
5. Kuwait.
6. Tomas Skuhravy (for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica, last 16, 1990)
7. Essam El Hadary (Egypt)
8. Cameroon
9. Norway
10. Mexico
11. 24
12. Brazil
13. Scotland
14. Memphis Depay (Netherlands)
15. Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria)
16. Diego Maradona (Argentina)
17. Paolo Maldini (Italy)
18. Uwe Seeler (West Germany)
19. Zero
20. Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

It wasn't so long ago that voicing the idea of Juventus challenging for the Scudetto this season would have seen you laughed out of the room.

Yet, remarkably, they could potentially end the weekend just four points off the summit, and a victory over defending champions Inter would be a decent barometer of just how emphatic their late push is going to be.

Serie A's standout match this week is undoubtedly the Derby d'Italia between Juve and Inter in Turin, with Italy's top flight essentially establishing a pretty firm top four ahead of the international break.

But Massimiliano Allegri's Juve surely won't be content with just settling for fourth spot, and a win on Sunday will show they mean business.

A bedrock for improvement

Even if Juve do end up winning Serie A, Allegri will still have to contend with plenty of critics given their shock Champions League exit to Villarreal.

However, there's little doubt he has presided over a significant improvement since Andrea Pirlo's exit, even if the Old Lady remains more functional than fun.

 

The most notable aspect of their improved form is Juve's unbeaten streak. They have not lost any of their previous 16 league games, making them only one of two teams across the big five leagues to not suffer a domestic defeat in the past four months, the other being Sevilla in LaLiga.

The omens are good for Inter's visit as well: the Nerazzurri have won just once in 15 trips to Juve and that came way back in November 2012.
 

Timely break

Simone Inzaghi must have been concerned about Inter's form prior to the international break, which seemingly came at a good time for them.

Over their previous nine Serie A matches, Inter have gained just 11 points and won only two matches – sure, victory on Sunday and another in their game in hand will put them within three points of the summit, but that previous run is hardly a hallmark of champions.

By comparison, Juve have hit the accelerator at arguably the perfect time. Over the same period, Allegri's men have taken 21 points.

The Bianconeri have rocketed into contention by finding consistency when, for the most part, the top three have wobbled, and if they continue their run, Juventus will be hard to ignore in the title race.

Juve, beware!

For all of their recent woes, Inter of course remain a dangerous opponent with a particularly threatening tail.

That's to say Inter do have a habit of finishing strong and not knowing when they're beaten.

In Serie A this season, Inter's 19 points won from losing positions is more than any other team, while they have scored 22 times in the final 30 minutes of games – that's a joint-high with Atalanta, Lazio and Hellas Verona.

Juve ought to heed such a warning – don't get complacent with a slender lead in the latter stages.
 

A tight affair?

While Inter are the league's top scorers with 62 goals, there's reason to suggest this won't be an unrelenting goalfest… *cue eight-goal thriller*.

These are two of the league's best three defences, while no team has kept more clean sheets than Juve's 13 this term.

 

On top of that, Juve have proven rather miserly when it comes to allowing goalscoring situations, with their average of 3.1 shots on target concede per 90 minutes being bettered only by Torino.

Inter aren't much worse in that respect, with their average at 3.6 – that's the sixth best in Serie A. Of course, a clinical display in that regard could still lead to plenty of goals, but clearly if there's any area both of these sides have excelled in domestically this term, it's defensively.

 

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

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

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

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

 

How will the draw work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

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

Luck of the draw!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How will the draw work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pots

Pot One:

Qatar (hosts)
Brazil
Belgium
France
Argentina
England
Spain
Portugal

 

Pot Two:

Denmark
Netherlands
Germany
Mexico 
USA
Switzerland
Croatia
Uruguay

Pot Three:

Senegal
Iran
Japan
Morocco
Serbia
Poland
South Korea
Tunisia

 

Pot Four:

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

Luck of the draw!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup is all but over.

Some key matches still have to be played, with Wales yet to find out their fate as they wait to face the winner of Scotland's play-off with Ukraine, which has been postponed due to Russia's invasion of the country, while there are inter-confederation play-offs also to be decided.

In total, 28 nations have qualified already, and most of football's star names will be present.

That being said, while France's world champions will bid to defend their crown, Neymar will bring the Brazilian stardust, Lionel Messi will look to build on Argentina's Copa America triumph and Cristiano Ronaldo will feature at a record-equalling fifth tournament, some huge players - and indeed teams, in the case of Italy - will not be present in Qatar.

Stats Perform has looked at some of the star players who will be watching the tournament from home.

Mohamed Salah (Egypt)

Arguably the best player in the world this season, Salah will not be lighting up Qatar with any mazy runs or sensational strikes. Given the tournament is in the middle of next season, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp may secretly be pleased his talisman will not be risking injury or fatigue, but Salah – who blazed his penalty over in the decisive shoot-out against Senegal on Tuesday – will be a big miss.

 

James Rodriguez (Colombia)

A star of the 2014 World Cup, in which he won the golden boot, James Rodriguez scored Colombia's winner against Venezuela on Tuesday, yet Peru's victory over Paraguay meant the ex-Real Madrid playmaker and his team-mates will not appear in Qatar, where James currently plies his trade for Al-Rayyan.

Luis Diaz, who has made a flying start to life at Liverpool since joining from Porto in January, is another Colombian talent who will be watching on from the sidelines.

Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy)

The hero of Italy's Euro 2020 triumph with his saves in the penalty shoot-out victory over England last July, Donnarumma – one of Europe's best goalkeepers – will be watching on from afar along with the rest of Roberto Mancini's players. After his error in Paris Saint-Germain's capitulation against Madrid in the Champions League, March has been a sour month for the 23-year-old.

Georgio Chiellini (Italy)

While Donnarumma has time on his side to make it to the next World Cup, the same cannot be said for Giorgio Chiellini. The centre-back is 37 and will surely not be featuring at another major tournament for Italy now.

Defensive partner Leonardo Bonucci may also fall into that category, given he turns 35 in May, while 29-year-old playmaker Marco Verratti may also have seen his final chance of appearing at the World Cup for a second time dashed.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)

It was the battle of two of Europe's leading marksmen of the last decade on Tuesday, as Poland went head-to-head with Sweden, and it was Robert Lewandowski and Co. who came out on top, winning 2-0.

Bayern Munich star Lewandowski opened the scoring from the penalty spot, and though Ibrahimovic came on as a late substitute, he could not turn the tide in Sweden's favour. The Milan striker has suggested he wants to carry on playing for his country, but at 40, surely this was his last chance of appearing at a World Cup.

Erling Haaland (Norway)

Although Ibrahimovic may be approaching the tail-end of his career, Haaland is certainly not. Yet like the Swede, the Borussia Dortmund forward will not be playing in Qatar either.

Indeed, even if Norway had made it through their qualification group, it is uncertain as to whether or not the players would have chosen to boycott the tournament, having previously made their feelings on Qatar's human rights record clear. But they finished third in Group G anyway.

Arsenal playmaker Martin Odegaard is another bright Norweigian talent, though the Scandinavian nation may well fancy their chances heading towards Euro 2024 and the 2026 World Cup.

 

David Alaba (Austria)

Madrid defender Alaba could not inspire Austria to victory in their play-off clash with Wales, with Gareth Bale's double doing the damage. After a glittering career with Bayern, Alaba is on course to win LaLiga with Los Blancos, but any form of real, tangible success on the international stage looks set to avoid him.

Jan Oblak (Slovenia)

Oblak's form has dipped this season for Atletico Madrid but on his day he is still right up there among the world's best goalkeepers, though he could not help Slovenia finish higher than fourth in their qualification group, as their wait to qualify for a first World Cup since 2010 rolled on.

Aaron Finch stated that inexperience is no excuse for Australia not to target victory in their one-day series against Pakistan.

Australia edged out a hard-fought Test series 1-0, in what was an emotional tour for a variety of off-field reasons.

Three ODIs, originally scheduled to be held in Rawalpindi only to be moved to Lahore due to political unrest in Pakistan, now await before a solitary Twenty20.

The results will factor into the World Super League, with Australia sitting in seventh place, three spots above Babar Azam's team.

Australia have only played four ODIs since December 2020, and the last of those was back in July against West Indies.

They are also without some key names. Steve Smith has been ruled out due to an elbow injury, while Kane Richardson has been left at home to nurse a hamstring issue. Test captain Pat Cummins will not feature, and neither will Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, David Warner or Glenn Maxwell.

On Monday, meanwhile, Finch was dealt a further blow by news of a hip injury for Mitchell Marsh, who will miss the first match, and that wicketkeeper Josh Inglis had tested positive for COVID-19. Yet the T20 World Cup-winning skipper was in no mood to make excuses.

"Our goal 100 per cent is to win this series," Finch told reporters.

"We still feel like we have a squad to do that even though it is inexperienced. At times that can be a blessing because you have guys who can play freely and express themselves.

"It's about trying to build the depth of the squad and build experience in players. It's a really good opportunity. With every decision we make there is one eye towards the 50-over World Cup and to tie everything back to that is really important."

 

Cameron Green, who impressed in the Tests but has played just one ODI, will replace Marsh in the first ODI, while Alex Carey is set to slot in behind the stumps.

"Cam will play and probably bat in that middle-order role," Finch said. "We've seen he's a super talented cricketer. He's someone who has been quite consistent in his Test career, his impact with the bat and ball can't be understated. Really excited for Cam to get that opportunity."

Finch closing in on Warner and Waugh

Finch has not been in the best of form as of late. He last played an ODI in December 2020, against India, while he only scored above 10 on two occasions in the five-match T20 series against Sri Lanka earlier in 2022.

However, the 35-year-old is only one century away from equalling Warner and Mark Waugh on 18 ODI tons, which would put him joint-second on Australia's all-time list, behind Ricky Ponting, who is way ahead on 29.

Finch at least heads into the series knowing Australia have a fine record against Pakistan in 50-over matches, having won 15 of their last 16 such meetings, including triumphing in their last nine on the bounce, with the sole defeat coming in January 2017.

Australia also like playing in Lahore, winning four of their seven ODIs at the Gaddafi Stadium.

Finch's hopes of improving his place in the Aussie record books are also boosted by the fact that Australian batters have scored nine ODI centuries since the start of 2020, which is second only to South Africa (10) in that timeframe.

 

Another milestone approaches for Babar 

Finch's counterpart Babar batted well in the Test series, scoring a brilliant 196 in the second match and amassing 122 runs across his two innings in the final game, albeit to no avail.

The Pakistan captain needs just 15 runs to become the 15th player from his country to register 4,000 in ODIs. Should he manage it in his next innings, he will become the second-fastest batter to reach the milestone (82 matches), after Hashim Amla (81).

Babar and Pakistan will have to watch Adam Zampa closely. The spinner is just three wickets away from becoming Australia's 18th bowler to take 100 in 50-over cricket, while his best figures against Pakistan were 4-43 in March 2019.

The hosts, too, are blooding new players. Uncapped duo Asif Afridi and Mohammad Harris have been called up, while Abdullah Shafique, who scored 397 runs across six innings in the Test series, is in line for his ODI debut.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.