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.

It's almost taken for granted that the best players in football appear at the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup.

But look a little closer, and we can see that is just not the case. Every four years there are a handful of big names who miss out, usually those born to countries without the same footballing pedigree as the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain.

There are even countless greats who, down the years, have failed to register a single appearance at a World Cup finals. Either they've been something of an anomaly in terms of the quality available to their country at a given time, injury has struck, or the coach simply hasn't picked them. Alfredo di Stefano, Ryan Giggs, George Best, Eric Cantona all enjoyed illustrious careers without playing in a World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski have at least all appeared at previous editions of the tournament, so this week's qualifying climax in Europe isn't exactly the only opportunity they have to ensure they represent their respective countries on the grandest stage.

But, given their ages, it has to be considered likely that Qatar 2022 will be the last World Cup at which any of them appear.

Waiting to make their mark

Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski have, obviously, enjoyed incredible careers. At club and international level, both have titles and records practically coming out of their ears.

Lewandowski already has more caps (128) and goals (74) for Poland than anyone else ever, while Ibrahimovic is Sweden's all-time top scorer (62).

Historically, both strikers are their respective nations' most-recognisable footballers, and surely the most talented they've ever produced.

Yet, one cannot say either of them has ever caused much of a stir at a World Cup.

Of course, neither Ibrahimovic nor Lewandowski has ever played in a senior international team that would be considered a challenger for major honours – in fact, each of them has only ever featured at one World Cup.

Ibrahimovic was a part of the Sweden team that got to the last 16 of the 2006 edition, while Lewandowski made his World Cup bow four years ago in Russia.

Sweden coach Janne Andersson opted against offering Ibrahimovic a way out of international retirement ahead of the 2018 World Cup, but he did eventually return in March last year. He will be 41 by the time Qatar 2022 comes around in November.

Lewandowski will be 34, so it's by no means outside the realm of possibility that he'll make an appearance in 2026, particularly if we look at Ibrahimovic's longevity.

But there won't be room for both of them in Qatar. Tuesday's play-off final in Chorzow pits Poland and Sweden against each other for the right to secure passage to the finals and what could be a last World Cup appearance for one of these two all-time greats.

No one will be expecting Sweden or Poland to go deep into the tournament, given neither has been beyond the last eight since 1994. But it would seem a travesty if players as good as Lewandowski and Ibrahimovic never managed to score at a World Cup.

Primed for World Cup number five, unless…

While Ibrahimovic and Lewandowski are still waiting to make a memorable impact at a World Cup, Ronaldo will be featuring at a fifth assuming he and Portugal qualify.

Ronaldo first appeared at the 2006 World Cup, something few England fans will forget given his role in Wayne Rooney's sending-off during their quarter-final tussle. Portugal went on to win 3-1 on penalties after a 0-0 draw, with Ronaldo netting the decisive spot-kick.

They finished fourth that year, but in the three tournaments since, Portugal haven't got beyond the last 16.

While Portugal's success at Euro 2016 means Ronaldo should never have his international legacy questioned in future, that World Cup record must be something he is keen to improve.

Additionally, Qatar 2022 looks likely to be the last time a certain rivalry can dominate headlines in a major tournament.

Lionel Messi has already helped Argentina secure a place and, given their 30-match unbeaten run and the fact they head to Qatar as South American champions, there's every reason to expect La Albiceleste will be an entirely different proposition compared to the team at Russia 2018.

While Messi and Ronaldo have shown signs of decline this term at club level, they remain fundamental for their respective national teams – but this surely won't be the case in 2026.

Qatar 2022 should offer Ronaldo the chance to boost his World Cup goals record of seven in 17 games. While by no means poor, a player of such self-belief will surely be aiming for more.

 

Those leading the way appear out of reach, barring an utterly freak showing from Ronaldo. Miroslav Klose (16) holds the record for most World Cup goals, while the 'other/original/Brazilian' Ronaldo is just behind on 15. Then there are other greats Gerd Muller (14), Just Fontaine (13) and Pele (12).

Reaching double figures would seem a realistic target and at least put him in great company, with only 13 players reaching 10 World Cup goals in the tournament's history.

Similarly, that would also make him Portugal's most-prolific World Cup player, with Eusebio currently holding that record thanks to his nine strikes, all of which came in 1966.

Of course, it's by no means a given that Ronaldo or Portugal will make it. Up next for them on Tuesday in their play-off final are North Macedonia.

Fernando Santos' side will undoubtedly favour themselves, but North Macedonia have already shocked European champions Italy – who's to say they can't stun Portugal as well?

Italy have done all this before.

The Azzurri were World Cup regulars – and contenders – until remarkably failing to qualify for the first time since the 1958 tournament when they were beaten by Sweden in the play-offs for Russia 2018.

Of course, Italy feared a repeat when they were consigned to the play-off route again for Qatar 2022, but a potential final against Portugal was surely of greater concern than a home semi with North Macedonia.

Sensationally, however, the visitors stunned the European champions in Palermo, where Aleksandar Trajkovski's 92nd-minute blast secured the unlikeliest of 1-0 wins.

It means Italy are yet again featuring on a list of shock World Cup absentees.

ITALY/SPAIN 1958

Until these past two upsets, Italy's only failure to qualify for the World Cup had come in the 1950s. Needing to beat Northern Ireland in their final game of the three-team group, the Azzurri slumped to a 2-1 loss in Belfast. More surprising was the absence of Spain, as a team of legends including Alfredo Di Stefano and Luis Suarez missed out on a place in Sweden. A draw with Switzerland and defeat to Scotland meant that 4-1 victories in both return matches were not enough to salvage their hopes.

ENGLAND 1974

England were on top of the world in 1966 having lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on home turf. It remains the Three Lions' only triumph at a World Cup and, eight years later, England were not even at the tournament held in West Germany. In a three-team group with Wales and Poland, a 2-0 defeat and 1-1 draw with the latter meant Alf Ramsey's side did not qualify. Twenty years later, England again disappointed as they failed to qualify for USA '94 under Graham Taylor.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA 1978

Having won the European Championship two years previously with their attractive brand of football, there were high hopes for Czechoslovakia heading into qualifying for the tournament in Argentina. However, battles of Britain proved their downfall as losses in Wales and Scotland scuppered their hopes of adding World Cup glory to their European triumph.

NETHERLANDS 1986

After reaching the World Cup final in both 1974 and 1978, there was a down period for Netherlands, who missed out in '82 and also failed to qualify for Euro '84. A crop of players including Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Marco van Basten were expected to bring about a turnaround in fortunes for the Dutch ahead of the next World Cup in Mexico. However, they had to settle for a play-off against neighbours Belgium after finishing second in their qualifying group, and Georges Grun's header with just five minutes left on the clock saw them crash out on away goals. Netherlands also failed to qualify in 2002 and were not in Russia four years ago.

FRANCE 1994

Les Bleus had failed to qualify for Italia '90 having finished third in 1986. That failure was accepted as something of a transitional period, but a star-studded team featuring the likes of Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona were unable to secure the necessary result against Bulgaria in their final qualifier for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. France led through Eric Cantona but were pegged back by an Emil Kostadinov leveller before half-time. Gerard Houllier's side looked set to cling on to the point that would see them through until David Ginola infamously gave the ball away with an ill-judged cross in the final minute that allowed Kostadinov to make it 2-1 on the break, leaving French hopes dashed.

EGYPT 2010

Incredibly, Egypt's appearance at the 2018 World Cup was their first since 1990. That is despite their 2000s domination of the Africa Cup of Nations, with three consecutive victories between 2006 and 2010. Their failure to reach South Africa 12 years ago was arguably the greatest disappointment. After finishing with an identical record to Algeria, a play-off was needed to separate the two, with Egypt falling to a 1-0 defeat to extend their wait for a return to the global stage.

CHILE 2018

The depth of talent in South America means there are always likely to be notable casualties, but even then the two-time defending Copa America champions would have expected to contend on a global stage in Russia. However, Chile could only finish sixth in an incredibly tight group, without even a play-off to show for their efforts while Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to qualification with a hat-trick against Ecuador – his own participation in the finals having been in question until that point.

The new Formula One season is only a single race old, but Charles Leclerc has already matched the achievement of one title-winning former Ferrari star.

Now, ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Leclerc is out to try to repeat a Michael Schumacher feat and set a championship charge in motion.

The Monegasque driver led a Ferrari one-two in Bahrain last week, holding off Max Verstappen before the defending champion's mechanical woes ensured Carlos Sainz joined his team-mate on the top two steps of the podium.

It was the Scuderia's first race win since the 2019 Singapore GP, another one-two when Leclerc finished second to Sebastian Vettel.

The Leclerc-Sainz one-two was Ferrari's 85th in F1 – a record – and signalled a return to form, coming at the end of a weekend they had dominated, with the race winner also qualifying fastest to start from pole position.

Heading into the rest of the season, that should certainly provide Leclerc with encouragement, given the last Scuderia driver to start the season with a win from pole was Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. That was the most recent season in which a Ferrari driver won the title.

Indeed, should Leclerc convert pole again in Saudi Arabia, he would become the first Ferrari man to do so in the first two races of a campaign since Schumacher in his final title-winning season in 2004.

Leclerc and Sainz each discussed their title ambitions following Bahrain, so last week's runner-up will hope to go with his colleague again.

Ferrari have never had a one-two in each of the first two grands prix of a season, while Raikkonen and Felipe Massa in 2008 were their last duo to achieve such a result in consecutive races at any stage of the year.

Meanwhile, if Leclerc hopes to follow in Schumacher's footsteps, Mercedes rival George Russell does not.

Schumacher in 2010, then in the twilight of his legendary career after coming out of retirement, was the only Silver Arrows driver to this point fail to make the podium in his first three races with the team.

A pit-stop error and a puncture saw Russell finish his Mercedes debut in ninth when deputising for Lewis Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir GP, while he was fourth behind his new team-mate last week.

The Red Bull woe that boosted Ferrari also rescued that three-four result for Mercedes, but team principal Toto Wolff said: "It's too early to look at the championship as it stands. If you look at the pecking order today, it seems a long shot to even be in contention for any of the championships.

"If I look at [Bahrain] as a single race weekend, we probably scored the maximum of points that we could have. And we need to take it from there.

"Every weekend counts and, at the moment, it's singular events because, realistically, when you're third on the road, you can't think about winning it."

Ash Barty stunned the sporting world on Wednesday by announcing her retirement from tennis, bowing out as the top-ranked player in the women's game.

The popular 25-year-old has not featured since winning her home grand slam at the Australian Open in January, becoming the first female Aussie singles champion of the tournament since Chris O'Neil in 1978.

Announcing the news on her Instagram page, Barty cited achieving a lifelong goal of winning Wimbledon last year as a primary factor behind her decision as well as being "spent physically".

But Barty is by no means the first sporting hero to retire at the top of their game. Below we take a look at some other examples of those who have exited as champions.

ALAIN PROST

The 1993 Formula One season was largely dominated by one man – Williams driver Alain Prost. The Frenchman had to battle hard with the iconic Ayrton Senna at the start of the campaign, with them each taking three wins from the first six races of the season. However, a run of four straight victories for Prost were followed by a string of retirements for Senna, ensuring a fourth world title that provided the ideal ending to a glittering career.

ALEX FERGUSON

One of the most successful managers in world football, Alex Ferguson began a 27-year stint at Manchester United after an excellent spell at Aberdeen. The Scot won 28 major trophies at Old Trafford, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues. His final trophy came with top-flight glory in 2012-13, and 17 days later he brought the curtain down.

PEYTON MANNING

Considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Peyton Manning won his first Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007 and, after an injury-blighted season that raised doubts about his ability aged 39, he added a second with the Denver Broncos in 2016, bowing out on the ultimate high.

RICHIE MCCAW, DAN CARTER

New Zealand became the first nation to successfully defend the Rugby World Cup trophy by beating Australia 34-17 in the final at Twickenham in 2015, adding to their success on home soil four years prior. It proved the end of the line for captain Richie McCaw, who was at the time the most capped player in rugby union with 148 appearances for the All Blacks, as well as mercurial fly-half Dan Carter. Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Kevin Mealamu were also among an influential contingent that opted to end their international careers.

PETE SAMPRAS

In defeating Andre Agassi in the final of the 2002 US Open, the same opponent he overcame to win his first grand slam 12 years prior, Pete Sampras secured his place among the greats in men's tennis. It was a then-record 14th major singles title for a male player for the American, a milestone that has since been surpassed by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, but he did not compete again and announced his retirement almost one year later.

PHILIPP LAHM, MIROSLAV KLOSE

At 31 you still have a number of years ahead of you in football. However, after lifting the World Cup trophy with Germany in 2014, Philipp Lahm decided to call time on his international career and focus on club football with Bayern Munich. The versatile full-back made 113 appearances for his country and was joined by fellow centurions Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose – whose tally of 71 international strikes is a German record – in switching focus to domestic matters.

MARION BARTOLI

A first grand slam at Wimbledon in 2013 appeared to be the breakthrough moment for a 28-year-old Marion Bartoli, but reality proved very different. The Frenchwoman defeated Sabine Lisicki – who had overcome pre-tournament favourites Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska – in the All England Club final, but announced her retirement during the Western and Southern Open just 40 days later due to persistent injuries. She attempted a comeback in 2018 but continued setbacks and injuries curtailed those plans.

NICO ROSBERG

Nico Rosberg had engaged in several intense battles with Lewis Hamilton before finally getting the better of his Mercedes team-mate to become Formula One world champion in the 2016 season. Still only 31, Rosberg had potentially several more years in F1 but the German instead opted to depart having reached the pinnacle of his sport.

Somehow, the opening race of the 2022 Formula One season in Bahrain last weekend managed to compare to the drama of 2021.

The first Ferrari one-two finish since Singapore in 2019, wheel-to-wheel duels between race winner Charles Leclerc and reigning world champion Max Verstappen, Mercedes achieving damage limitation with late DNFs for both Red Bull cars, new regulations creating the potential for a huge shakeup in the pecking order – there was a lot that went on at the Sakhir circuit on Sunday.

Ferrari are the biggest story coming into Jeddah this weekend, though.

There was enough to suggest Ferrari would compete with Red Bull and Mercedes coming out of winter testing, but just how competitive remained to be seen.

Despite Verstappen's failure to finish, Leclerc and Carlos Sainz dispelled any doubt in that regard with a maximum points haul. Something that arguably reinforces the point on Ferrari's strength was Sainz admitting he did not have the best of weekends.

"I mean in FP1, FP2 and FP3 I was very far behind, the most far that I've been ever in Ferrari and that's why even with a one-two that we scored I'm not entirely happy with the weekend, because as a Ferrari driver it's been my most difficult weekend," Sainz said.

"It just shows I need to put my head down, understand this car, understand where is Charles making the difference with his driving and the way he's approaching the corners and driving the tyres, also in the race."

For Leclerc, however, there's a belief that he finally has a car accordant to his talent to compete for the driver's title.

"Coming into this season, we surely knew we were going to be in a better position compared to the past two years but we didn't really know where, and now we see that we are actually in the mix to fight for a title, so it's amazing," he said.

Ferrari and Mercedes battle across the grid

The fascinating battle between a resurgent Ferrari and a previously dominant Mercedes will not just be fought between the factory teams this weekend in Saudi Arabia.

Amid new regulations, an interesting detail was the battle below the top teams. Ferrari power units made for five of the top ten positions in Sakhir, and four of the top six.

Meanwhile, apart from Lewis Hamilton and George Russell in the factory cars, Mercedes-powered cars made up the bottom six cars to have finished.

The Ferrari-powered Haas and Alfa Romeo have long been lagging at the back of the pack, but now look strong enough to take up the fight to Alpine, as well as the ambitious and Mercedes-powered McLaren and Aston Martin teams.

The midfield battle will be as fierce as the one at the front of the grid, while Saudi Arabia might shed some more light on the McLarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.

How quickly Red Bull bounce back?

Red Bull provided the bulk of the late drama in Sakhir, with Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez both failing to finish, due to fuel pump failure.

New fuel regulations for 2022 have meant higher engine temperatures on lower fuel, and Red Bull did not do enough low-fuel running during winter testing to encounter what they did in Sakhir.

Meanwhile, Mercedes and Ferrari were able to rectify these problems heading into the season start.

The question is, though the Red Bull is unquestionably strong in terms of race pace, how much will Verstappen have to play catch-up in the drivers' standings as the team sorts their fuel pump problem out?

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 26
2. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) 18
3. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 15
4. George Russell (Mercedes) 12
5. Kevin Magnussen (Haas) 10

Constructors

1. Ferrari 44
2. Mercedes 27
3. Haas 10
4. Alfa Romeo 9
5. Alpine 8

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