Russia has withdrawn its appeal against a ban for its teams from FIFA competitions after World Cup qualifying continued without its senior men's national team.

Russian teams were suspended from FIFA and UEFA competitions following the country's invasion of Ukraine.

The FIFA sanction meant Valeri Karpin's Russia could not compete in their scheduled World Cup play-off semi-final against Poland.

The Russian Football Union (RFU) asked for the ban to be delayed, with that match set for late March, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rejected its request.

It meant Poland progressed to a final against Sweden, who had defeated the Czech Republic. Poland won to advance to Qatar 2022.

With that tie settled and Poland drawn into a World Cup group alongside Argentina, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, CAS announced on Tuesday the RFU had withdrawn its appeal last week.

Russia's challenges of various bans – including from UEFA – appear set to continue, however.

Ukraine midfielder Taras Stepanenko wants their World Cup qualifying play-off semi-final against Scotland to be postponed again.

Scotland and Ukraine were meant to meet last month, but FIFA delayed the match until June due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As such, Wales – who beat Austria 2-1 in their play-off semi – are yet to find out which team they will face for a place at the Qatar World Cup in November.

Wales, Scotland and Ukraine all know which group they will be in should they progress, however, with the winner of the play-off path having been drawn alongside England, Iran and the United States in Group B.

But with no sign of the conflict in Ukraine ceasing, Stepanenko, who has played 69 times for his country, has called on FIFA to delay the match with Scotland again. 

The Shakhtar Donetsk man, who last played a match in December, told The Sunday Times: "We don't want to be known as victims here. We are strong and capable guys, everyone is fine, and we can play 100 per cent.

"But the question I would ask is how can we play such an important game when you haven't played a match for such a long time?

"Every football player knows that if you recover from an injury for a long time, no matter how much you work out in the gym and do running, you go out to play football and everything is different.

"The level and strength may not be enough with one match, but we will be asked to play two incredibly tough matches in maybe four days to get to the World Cup. If there is no option, then we must play.

"But I think it would be extremely difficult to achieve two positive results. We are hoping FIFA and UEFA recognise this and postpone the matches to give us more time to prepare."

Speaking after the World Cup draw was made in Doha on Friday, both England manager Gareth Southgate and USA coach Gregg Berhalter stressed they were not concerned by how long it might take for the final team in their group to be confirmed, given the extraordinary circumstances.

"When that tie is played out is irrelevant really," said Southgate, while Berhalter added: "We're patient on that and pulling for [Ukraine] 100 per cent."

Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale will wait until after Wales' World Cup qualifying play-off final in June before deciding on his future, agent Jonathan Barnett has said.

Bale is out of contract at the Santiago Bernabeu at the end of the season and is widely expected to depart after spending nine years in the Spanish capital.

The 32-year-old has won 14 trophies during his time with Madrid, including four Champions Leagues, but he has been accused of often prioritising Wales over his club side.

Indeed, Bale has played in just five of Los Blancos' 42 matches in all competitions this term, totalling 270 minutes on the field – the equivalent of just three games.

Bale has played over 330 minutes for Wales this season, however, scoring five goals across six matches.

While the former Tottenham star's future is a hot topic of debate, he has yet to decide on his future at club level beyond the end of the season.

"We have not discussed anything yet," agent Barnett told BBC Sport. "Once we know Wales' situation with the World Cup, we will discuss it then."

 

Bale scored twice in Wales' 2-1 win over Austria in last week's qualifying play-off semi-final, leaving his country one game away from a first World Cup appearance since 1958.

That took his tally in a Wales shirt to 38 goals in 102 caps, making him his country's record goalscorer, while only Chris Gunter (107) has earned more caps.

The Dragons will now face either Scotland or Ukraine in a one-legged final at Cardiff City Stadium, with that fixture expected to be staged in June.

At club level, Bale's relationship with Madrid supporters and the Spanish press has continued to deteriorate after being labelled a "parasite" by daily sports newspaper Marca.

A third spell with Tottenham has been mooted once Bale departs Madrid, while a switch to MLS is also reportedly a possibility, as is a move to home club Cardiff City.

Cristiano Ronaldo claimed Portugal are in their "rightful place" after Fernando Santos' team secured their place at the 2022 World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes scored both goals in a 2-0 win over North Macedonia in Porto on Tuesday, ensuring Portugal's run of qualifying for every World Cup since the turn of the century continued.

Portugal had to get through two play-off games to reach Qatar after finishing behind Serbia in their qualification group, but it does mean Italy are the only true European footballing heavyweight that will not be featuring in the tournament later this year.

Barring injury, Manchester United forward Ronaldo will be featuring at his fifth World Cup, equalling the record shared by Antonio Carbajal, Rafael Marquez, Lothar Matthaus and Gianluigi Buffon, albeit the latter did not actually play in the 1998 tournament despite making Italy's squad.

"Goal achieved, we are at the Qatar World Cup, we are in our rightful place!" Ronaldo wrote in a post on his official Instagram account shortly after the match.

"Thank you to all the Portuguese for your tireless support! Go Portugal!"

Ronaldo teed up Fernandes' opener in the 32nd minute, with the 37-year-old's club-mate then slotting in from Diogo Jota's cross midway through the second half to all but wrap up the win.

"It doesn't matter at all. It's important to help the team, I'm not here to score goals," Fernandes told reporters when asked about his own performance.

"If I can score, I'd be happy to. That's what I did today. Then it's up to everyone to give their criticism and opinion.

"But I keep my mind on the coach's ideas, and that's probably why I've had this double, for doing what the coach asks of me."

On qualifying, Fernandes added: "It will be in a special place, obviously. The objective has been achieved, which is the most important thing.

"I think Portugal has played better, we've had better performances, but this game made a difference because it qualified us."

Manuel Neuer believes Germany are certainly "on the right track" as they look to prepare for the 2022 World Cup.

Germany drew 1-1 with the Netherlands on Tuesday, with Thomas Muller breaking the deadlock on the stroke of half-time.

However, they were forced to settle for a draw after Steven Bergwijn equalised in the 68th minute.

Germany finished the game with 62 per cent possession, and forced Dutch goalkeeper Mark Flekken into four saves, two more than Neuer had to make at the other end.

Speaking to reporters, Neuer said this game was an important step on their road to the World Cup, with Germany having failed to impress at Euro 2020, while they crashed out in the group stages in Russia in 2018.

"On the way to Qatar we have to use every test and take every game seriously," he said.

"That was the first big team we played against, and that was decent for a long time.

"We have good character and are self-confident. You saw that today. If you draw a line under it, you can see that we're on the right track."

Goal-scorer Muller explained that despite being disappointed with how the game turned in the second half, this game was evidence of how Germany can impose their will on quality opposition.

"The opening goal in this atmosphere was a great moment, then we lost a bit of control – that's frustrating," he said. "But you could see that not only can we match good teams, we can dominate them."

Flick, who had won his first eight games in charge of Germany before this draw, was also complimentary of what he saw from his squad.

"There was a high intensity from both sides, we had them under pressure for 60 minutes," he said.

"I have to compliment my team, they play nice football and their style is refreshing. I'm really pleased."

Germany are next scheduled for Nations League fixtures against Italy on June 4 and England on June 7.

Pepe declared Portugal have the quality to become world champions but admitted he was uncertain about his own prospects of playing at Qatar 2022.

Fernando Santos' team clinched their place at the finals with a 2-0 play-off win over North Macedonia in Porto on Tuesday.

Bruno Fernandes got both of the goals for the Euro 2016 champions, who beat Turkey in their previous play-off match.

It means Cristiano Ronaldo is set to feature at a record-equalling fifth World Cup, though fellow veteran campaigner Pepe is not quite so sure of his place.

While that does not seem likely to be down to coach Santos, with 39-year-old Pepe still a mainstay of his defence, the former Real Madrid centre-back insisted that now his focus is on helping Porto, rather than thinking about the showpiece that starts in November.

"I still don't know, there's still a lot of time," Pepe told reporters.

"Now I have to focus on my club's games. I didn't want to mix things up, but I know that at this age I have to think game by game. Obviously I want to help Portugal.

"I'm very happy to do what I like to do, play football, I try to pass on this desire of mine to enjoy every second and moment in football, because it passes very fast. I am 39, but I still have the same illusion of a kid of 15, 18, 20 years old. I try to make [my team-mates] feel this happiness because we are privileged."

Pepe played a crucial role in Portugal's second goal against North Macedonia, making a fine tackle deep in his own half to start the counter-attack that resulted in Fernandes steering home Diogo Jota's cross.

Portugal were ultimately comfortable winners, having 11 attempts and restricting their opponents to just three going the other way, with none of those hitting the target.

Yet the fact they were even in this play-off in the first place, and could well have been facing European champions Italy if not for North Macedonia's shock win over the Azzurri last week, points to a sense of underachievement.

Pepe, though, feels Portugal have all the tools to succeed in Qatar.

"We have a lot of quality, we know that for this feat we have to work hard and be very strong mentally, be a humble and warrior team, which we were many times in the period in which we won the Euros and the Nations League," he said.

"We have players with a big future, who play in big clubs in Europe. I believe we have the capacity to be world champions, but we'll take it easy, prepare well, so we can be at our level.

"It was an emotional night, the atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic, we felt that positive energy from everyone. I feel privileged to be part of this group, to be able to live this wonderful night.

"It [would be] a huge injustice not to be at the World Cup, the way we work, the way we dedicate ourselves, the criticism we receive. We proved to be a humble team."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is keen to keep his international career alive despite Sweden missing out on qualification for the 2022 World Cup. 

Sweden went down 2-0 to Poland in their qualifying play-off final, with Robert Lewandowski converting a penalty after Jesper Karlstrom's foul on Grzegorz Krychowiak and Piotr Zielinski's cool finish completing the success in Chorzow. 

Ibrahimovic retired from international duty after Euro 2016 but returned to the fold last year to help in Sweden's quest to reach Qatar. 

The 40-year-old is his country's all-time leading scorer with 62 goals to his name but he has failed to find the net in five appearances since making his comeback.

He was only a late substitute in the defeat against Poland yet has no intention of stepping away from the international set-up again. 

"I hope so. As long as I can stay healthy and play and contribute something," Ibrahimovic told C More said when asked if he would continue playing for Sweden.

Pushed to confirm he did not view the defeat to Poland as his last match, he replied: "There is no answer now. 

"Everyone is disappointed. It's depressing, but it's normal when you lose. Everyone wants to play [at] the World Cup and experience a World Cup, but unfortunately that won't happen." 

 

Sweden boss Janne Andersson believes a fit Ibrahimovic will continue to be of use.

"If it's the case that Zlatan wants to be involved and he's completely healthy – because he has to be, he has to play because otherwise it will be difficult – then he definitely has something to add still," said Andersson. 

Injuries have limited Ibrahimovic to just 918 minutes of game time in Serie A for Milan this season, with the striker scoring eight times.

Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zielinski sent Poland to a 2-0 play-off victory over Sweden, sealing World Cup qualification.

Bayern Munich star Lewandowski beat Robin Olsen from the penalty spot before Zielinksi produced a composed finish to secure the hosts' spot in Qatar as Zlatan Ibrahimovic's hopes of appearing at what would surely have been a final World Cup were dashed.

Sweden offered promise in the first half. Emil Forsberg placed an early shot too close to Wojciech Szczesny and Jan Bednarek blocked Dejan Kulusevski's effort.

Poland managed only one attempt on target during a tame first-half performance but needed just four minutes to hit the front after the break, Lewandowski rolling home from 12 yards after Jesper Karlstrom clumsily felled Grzegorz Krychowiak.

Szczesny made a stunning close-range save to again deny Forsberg, but Zielinski wrapped up the win when he robbed Marcus Danielson and slotted in after 72 minutes, sparking wild scenes of celebration in Chorzow.

Ibrahimovic came on with 11 minutes remaining but only had three touches as Sweden missed out on a World Cup for the third time out of the last four tournaments.

Portugal sealed their place at the 2022 World Cup as Bruno Fernandes double secured a 2-0 win over North Macedonia.

Fresh from their shock defeat of Italy, North Macedonia headed to Porto with another giant killing in their sights, but it is Cristiano Ronaldo and company who will feature in Qatar.

Whereas North Macedonia had kept things tight and took their chance when it came in Palermo last week, a costly mistake from Stefan Ristovski saw them fell behind this time around.

Fernandes took full advantage, opening the scoring in the 32nd minute before doubling his tally after finishing a counter-attack he helped start with a fine 65th-minute half volley to ensure Portugal kept up their record of qualifying for every World Cup since the turn of the century.

Portugal's first opportunity seemed set to result in a goal when Ronaldo burst onto Otavio's pass in the 14th minute, only to drag wide when one-on-one with Stole Dimitrievski.

North Macedonia had otherwise kept Portugal at arm's length, yet Diogo Jota should have done better when he headed over the bar from Fernandes' corner.

It was a mistake, though, that gifted Portugal the lead. Fernandes pounced on Ristovski's poor pass and, having received a neat pass back from Ronaldo, picked out the bottom-left corner.

Jota sliced a close-range effort wide as a chance for 2-0 went begging before half-time, but Fernandes made no such mistake after the hour.

Pepe's superb tackle prevented a North Macedonia attack and started a rapid counter, with Fernandes beating the offside trap to steer in brilliantly from Jota's cross.

That settled any nerves in the crowd, with Fernando Santos' team able to relax as their prolonged qualification quest proved successful.

The only downside for the fans was two late chances going amiss for Ronaldo, who just failed to turn home a Fernandes cross before his path to goal was blocked following an excellent run from Rafael Leao.

 

What does it mean? Heavyweights book their spot

The draw for Path C of the UEFA qualification play-offs always ensured that at least one giant of European football – and, indeed, one of the previous two Euro winners – would miss out on a place in Qatar.

The likes of Germany, England, Spain, France and the other European nations to already have qualified will have been thrilled to see Italy crash out to North Macedonia, but lightning never looked likely to strike twice for the minnows, who can at least reflect on that famous win over the Azzurri. 

Ronaldo set to match World Cup record

Barring missing out through injury, Ronaldo will feature in a fifth World Cup, which equals the record currently shared by Antonio Carbajal, Rafael Marquez, Lothar Matthaus and Gianluigi Buffon, albeit the latter did not actually play in the 1998 tournament despite making Italy's squad.

At 37, this will surely be Ronaldo's final chance to become a world champion on the international stage.

Minnows just don't have enough

Ristovski's error did, of course, prove extremely costly, but ultimately North Macedonia did just not have the guile or quality in attack to frighten Portugal.

In fact, they managed just three shots, with none of them testing home goalkeeper Diogo Costa.

What's next?

Portugal face neighbouring Spain in the Nations League in June, while North Macedonia go up against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia have already pulled off perhaps the greatest shock in World Cup qualifying history, so they are entering Tuesday's play-off against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal with no fear.

An incredible qualification campaign – in which they won away in Germany in Group J – continued for North Macedonia when they defeated Italy in last week's play-off semi-final.

That set up yet another away trip against an elite side, with the relative minnows now visiting Portugal for a place at Qatar 2022.

As Selecao talisman Ronaldo, now 37, is potentially bidding to play at his last World Cup – although he insists he will make that call – there is far more pressure on the hosts than on North Macedonia.

Coach Blagoja Milevski explained: "I don't think anyone would ever have expected that North Macedonia, as a country, as a national team, [would make it this far].

"Compared to the other participants in our group in this play-off, we are very small and that's why nobody expected North Macedonia to be in this position of being able to play in the final of this play-off and go to the World Cup.

"So, let's not run away from this opportunity. We are in a good position and I have only one message: to enjoy the moment and make the most of this opportunity to play against a great team."

Milevski knows Portugal are still the favourites, but that does not concern him.

"Of course we know who the favourites are. We know that according to everything that has happened, Portugal are the favourites," he said.

"But North Macedonia are not here by coincidence, we have our qualities and it was precisely these qualities that put us in the group of the best 20 at the European level. And so I think we have to see what happens."

Portugal required a play-off to qualify in both 2010 and 2014 – the latter seeing Ronaldo score all four goals of a 4-2 aggregate win over Sweden.

Those goals contribute to a world-record international tally of 115, but Milevski suggests North Macedonia cannot afford to focus on Ronaldo alone.

"Regarding Cristiano Ronaldo, I think we are talking about someone who has been the best player in the world for several years," the coach said.

"But we will not just play against him. There are 10 other players who play with him. Portugal is not just Ronaldo.

"Although he is sensational, there are other extraordinary players. And therefore, we will focus on the team as a whole and not just on an individual."

Leonardo Bonucci has confirmed he will not retire from international football, while backing Roberto Mancini after Italy failed to qualify for a second straight World Cup.

Bonucci was part of Mancini's Azzurri side that responded to not making the 2018 World Cup in Russia by winning Euro 2020 late in July last year.

Italy also embarked on a world-record 37-game unbeaten run, which came to an end against Spain in the Nations League semi-final in October, as they aimed to reach Qatar 2022.

However, Mancini's team could not top their World Cup qualifying group and succumbed to a late 1-0 loss against North Macedonia as Aleksandar Trajkovski delivered the decisive strike in the play-off semi-final on Thursday.

That led to speculation over Mancini's tenure and doubts over whether the national team's senior players would continue into the twilight of their careers, but Bonucci has committed his future to Italy.

"I don't know what Giorgio [Chiellini] will do. On my end, I want to continue to be an example and guide the younger players coming through wearing this shirt," he said at a news conference on Monday.

"The hours after the elimination was tough. We remained quiet during our moments together, like team lunches or dinners. We tried to play down the disappointment by saying that young players will have other opportunities.

"After the coach spoke to us, we put the past behind us and looked to the future. The future is now so we must start to rebuild and get what we didn't achieve. We have a solid base to come back."

Italian Football Federation president Gabriele Gravina has suggested he would like Mancini to remain in charge, and Bonucci echoed his sentiments as he praised his manager.

"What the coach has given us in these three years is something unique," he continued. "There is an empathy that is rare to see at Coverciano [Italy's headquarters], continuing with Mancini is the only logical decision.

"His ideas and values are not under question. Anything can happen in a game and opinions can change, but we have been with him every day and want to continue it."

Roberto Mancini suggested he is likely to continue as Italy head coach despite the Azzurri missing out on a second straight World Cup.

Italy responded to failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia by winning Euro 2020 on penalties against England in late July last year, their first European Championship since 1968.

The Azzurri also embarked on a world record 37-game unbeaten run, which ended at the hands of Spain in the Nations League semi-final in October, as they looked to make Qatar 2022.

However, Mancini's side failed to top their World Cup qualifying group and could not get past North Macedonia on Thursday in the play-off semi-final as they fell to a late 1-0 loss in Palermo.

That led to speculation over the future of the former Manchester City boss, but Italian Football Federation president Gabriele Gravina assured he would like Mancini to stay at the helm.

Mancini has also reiterated his desire to remain in charge of the national side, a sentiment he echoed at Monday's pre-match news conference ahead of a third-place play-off clash with Turkey.

"I talked to Gravina; we are aligned on everything," Mancini said. "Let's think about this match, then calmly we will think about everything, to understand what to improve in the future.

He added: "There are important national teams that have not won anything for 60 years. Italy is a little further ahead in this, despite some disappointments. Sometimes we exaggerate saying that we must necessarily look for the reasons.

"Despite the great disappointment of Palermo, I am pleased that the work done in these three years has been appreciated.

"It's not just the European Championship, these players must also be given credit for the long streak of matches without defeat.

"We don't just have good players; these are special guys who have created an exceptional group. Not only in the locker room, also everything around [Italy's headquarters in] Coverciano, in the federation, here there is a perfect group that seemed ideal for me to achieve success."

Italy could have wrapped up group qualification earlier but Jorginho missed two penalties in as many matches against eventual winners Switzerland, and Mancini acknowledged his side should not have required the play-offs.

"We should have won our group with at least a two-point advantage over Switzerland," he said. "I don't want to find excuses for what's happened, we have to accept reality and move on."

A lack of younger players being involved with Italy has also brought Mancini's tenure into question, and he vowed to make changes in future to address the problems.

"We have to start over, start thinking differently," he continued. "We will include younger players in the national team, in the hope that they will have more opportunities in their respective clubs as well.

"We will start from this, then we will see what to do in a more general context."

Cristiano Ronaldo insists he will be the one to decide if the 2022 World Cup is the last of his career, as Portugal prepare for their crucial play-off with North Macedonia.

With Ronaldo turning 37 last month, there is understandable speculation around whether this year's edition of FIFA's showpiece event could represent the last to involve the Portugal captain, who has already appeared at four editions of the World Cup.

One more tournament appearance would see Ronaldo join Lothar Matthaus, Rafael Marquez, Gianluigi Buffon and Antonio Carbajal in having gone to five different finals – although Buffon did not play when he was named in the Italy squad in 1998.

Ronaldo's 115 goals in 185 Portugal appearances represent a record in men's internationals, and the Manchester United striker says only he will decide if the 2022 World Cup represents his last.

"I'm starting to see that many of you ask the same question," Ronaldo replied to reporters at Monday's pre-match press conference.

"I'm the one who's going to decide my future, nobody else. 

"If I feel like playing more games, I'll play; if I don't feel like playing more, I don't play. I'm in charge, period."

 

Portugal's nervy 3-1 win over Turkey on Thursday left them within one win of sealing qualification for Qatar 2022, and the Selecao are hot favourites to do so after North Macedonia dumped out European champions Italy to book their own place in the play-off final.

Ronaldo, while warning Portugal's opponents deserved respect, claims Fernando Santos' team "will beat any team in the world" if they play at their best level.

"We know that they are a very well organised team," the 37-year-old added. "They have their strengths. 

"We respect them, but I think that if Portugal are at the best level, they will beat any team in the world. 

"[It is the] game of our lives, too, not just for Macedonia. I hope the stadium can respond in the best way, with a very strong atmosphere throughout the 90 minutes."

Meanwhile, Coach Santos shrugged off suggestions he was pleased to face North Macedonia for a place in Qatar, rather than Italy, saying he was simply happy with his own side's result against Turkey.

"I'm not happy [not to play Italy]," the 67-year-old said. "I'm happy that Portugal beat Turkey and played a good game. It was a tough opponent, we knew we had to win. 

"We'll do everything we can to be present at the World Cup."

Portugal have not failed to qualify for a major tournament since missing out on the 1998 World Cup in France, featuring at each of the past five editions of world football's most celebrated competition.

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?

Bernardo Silva acknowledged the pressure on Portugal to qualify for the World Cup but assured his side can cope with the challenge of making Qatar.

Portugal overcame Turkey 3-1 in the play-off semi-final on Thursday, when Roberto Mancini's Italy crashed out to North Macedonia as Aleksandar Trajkovski scored a 92nd-minute winner in Palermo.

Fernando Santos' side boast home advantage in the final at Porto's Dragao Stadium as the Euro 2016 winners aim to qualify for a sixth straight World Cup, having previously failed to appear at three consecutive tournaments between 1990 and 1998.

Manchester City star Silva insisted that Portugal players will call upon their club experiences to deal with the expectations on them against North Macedonia on Tuesday.

"The responsibility of being present at the World Cup means that, regardless of the opponent, we have this pressure," Silva told reporters at Sunday's pre-match news conference.

"The pressure exists in that sense, and we accept it, and it would be the same against Italy, [North] Macedonia or anyone else. We are used to pressure at our clubs.

"Of course, having players with experience in decisive games helps. But the fact that North Macedonia haven't played as many games like these also makes their motivation levels higher."

North Macedonia are eyeing a first World Cup in their 27-year history, having qualified for Euro 2020 last year, and Silva knows Blagoja Milevski's team will by no means be pushovers.

"North Macedonia have won four of their last five away games, two of them against two of the best teams in the world [Germany, a 2-1 win in March 2021, and Italy]," he added.

"Let's do our homework, see what the coach's plan is and try to follow it in the best way, knowing that teams are different and will demand different things.

"We are a team that creates many chances. We also know that we need to control the counter-attacks, and the best way to do that is by moving the ball well.

"We know that we have a difficult task ahead of us, but we will do our best to overcome an opponent that we know will create some difficulties. It's 90 minutes, anything can happen, and we're sure it will be very difficult.

"We need to go to the game with the same idea and all rowing in the same direction. I'm sure things will go well."

Fellow midfielder Joao Moutinho echoed Silva's sentiments, though he admitted Portugal expected to contend with Italy for a place at the 2022 edition of FIFA's showpiece event.

"I won't lie to you: we were all expecting it was going to be Italy," Moutinho told reporters.

"Football is different nowadays, every team can win at this level; it doesn't matter the names, numbers or stats. North Macedonia have an extraordinary core and will do their best to make our life miserable on Tuesday."

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