Mbappe finds form but Portugal could miss out on World Cup… winners and losers of internationals

Football fans may largely be relieved that the final international break of 2021 is over to allow club football to take centre stage once more going into the busy festive period.

However, it still offered its fair share of thrills and spills with 29 of the final 32 teams confirming their place at next year’s Qatar World Cup, with 12 teams set to do battle for the remaining three spots in one-off semi-finals and a final in March.

Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe ensured there were no slip-ups from England and France in reaching next year’s showpiece.

England were among 29 teams to confirm their place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

But the same could not be said for the likes of Jorginho and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Italy and Portugal sides will require the play-offs to reach the winter showpiece.

Luis Suarez and Uruguay’s situation is even more precarious, as they sit one point and two places off the intercontinental play-off spot in the CONMEBOL group stage with four matches remaining.

With all that in mind, Sportsmail takes a look back at the action over the last week to determine the ultimate winners and losers of the international break…

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, however, will have to go through the play-offs in March

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, however, will have to go through the play-offs in March

Winners

Harry Kane

Where else can we really begin? He may be struggling at Tottenham with just one Premier League goal this season, but there was no sign of any lack of form in front of goal for his country.

The 28-year-old scored a ‘perfect’ hat-trick against Albania at Wembley, his fifth for his country following a headed first, a smashed second into the corner with his left and then an acrobatic third from a corner.

He was then grateful Gareth Southgate listened to his calls to start him against San Marino as he netted another four in the first half of the 10-0 thrashing, two of which came from the penalty spot.

Harry Kane is just five goals shy of equalling Wayne Rooney's record of 53 goals for England

Harry Kane is just five goals shy of equalling Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 goals for England

The most significant aspect of Kane’s England career currently appears to be his quest to overtake Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 goals for the Three Lions, with the Spurs star’s four in Serravalle taking him to 48.

Yet while the end of that pursuit will have to wait until March, Southgate would have been reassured that Kane’s confidence in scoring goals on the international stage has not diminished in the slightest amid his poor club form.

Now it is Antonio Conte at Spurs who will hope his seven goals in the past week can lead the north London side back up the table with some renewed vigour in his game. 

Kylian Mbappe

The 22-year-old had netted just two Ligue 1 goals in seven matches for Paris Saint-Germain coming into the international break.

He has struggled to lead the line for Mauricio Pochettino’s side this season but alongside Karim Benzema for his country he ran riot against Kazakhstan on Saturday. 

The ex-Monaco star scored three goals inside the opening 32 minutes of the World Cup qualifier before adding a fourth late on in Les Bleus’ thumping 8-0 win, which saw L’Equipe award him a rare 10 out of 10 rating in their player assessments.

Kylian Mbappe also returned to form with five goals in total against Kazakhstan and Finland

Kylian Mbappe also returned to form with five goals in total against Kazakhstan and Finland

He broke plenty of records too, becoming the first player to score four goals for France in a match since Just Fontaine back in 1958.

He is also now the youngest France player ever to score 23 goals for Les Bleus aged 22 years and 328 days, a record previously held by David Trezeguet after 25 years and 326 days.

Mbappe then set up Real Madrid forward Benzema for the opening goal against Finland before scoring himself to ensure Didier Deschamps’ men finished Group D with 18 points from eight games. 

Pochettino will now hope he has seen enough from Mbappe to turn it on for his club side now too, even if it is just until June with a high-profile summer move to Real Madrid increasingly mooted. 

Alvaro Morata

The weird, wonderful and sometimes sad case of Alvaro Morata and the Spanish national team took a delightful turn on Sunday when he came off the bench to score the winner for his country against Sweden.

The Estadio La Cartuja in Seville was a tense stadium when the Juventus forward was introduced in the 59th minute at the expense of Pablo Sarabia, who had scored the winner in Greece just a few days before.

Luis Enrique’s men were involved in a straight shootout with Sweden to seal automatic qualification for the World Cup and the game was on a knife edge when Morata was introduced a 0-0. 

But after Dani Olmo’s thunderous effort had struck the woodwork, the 29-year-old was the quickest to react and to finish with a cheeky finish as the pressure lifted on the team and Enrique.

Morata’s goal of course came at the same stadium where he was substituted in June to a chorus of boos after missing a penalty and wasting another clear opportunity in a 0-0 draw in La Roja’s Euro 2020 opener, also against Sweden. 

Alvaro Morata's Spain career took a turn for the better with the winner against Sweden

Alvaro Morata’s Spain career took a turn for the better with the winner against Sweden

He later revealed the extent of the awful abuse and threats he and his family received both on social media and in Seville, saying: ‘I would like people to put themselves in my shoes and think what it’s like to get threats towards my family, people saying “I hope your children die”. I’ve had to leave my phone outside my room.

‘My wife and children have come to the stadium in Seville with Morata on the back of their shirts and people have been shouting at them. It’s complicated. I understand people booing me for missing chances but there’s a limit.’ 

One can only hope he can now live up to expectations in Qatar and lead Spain to glory and shirk the expectation placed on him given the success his predecessors such as Fernando Torres and David Villa had with La Roja. 

Memphis Depay

Harry Kane is looking to become England’s outright record goalscorer, but he was not out on his own in the European scoring charts during the World Cup qualifiers. 

That was thanks to the enterprising Memphis Depay, who netted the second in Holland’s 2-0 win against Norway as he finished off a breakaway after being set up by Steven Bergwijn deep in stoppage time.

It was Depay’s 12th goal of the campaign, tying him with Kane and taking him on to 38 goals for his country.

Memphis Depay (left) equalled Kane's tally of 12 goals in World Cup qualifiers in Europe

Memphis Depay (left) equalled Kane’s tally of 12 goals in World Cup qualifiers in Europe

Perhaps most pleased with his exploits for his country is a Spaniard in the form of Xavi, who will be rubbing his hands at what the 27-year-old could produce under his tutelage at Barcelona.

Depay’s performances for the Catalan giants dipped after a promising start in Spain, before compatriot Ronald Koeman was dismissed.

But with six goals in 12 games, Depay has demonstrated he can handle the burden of being one of Barcelona’s main attacking outlets following Ansu Fati’s latest setback and Sergio Aguero being advised to take three months out of football due to arrhythmia heart issues. 

Losers

Portugal

‘Little ambition for so much talent’ was one of the headlines the Portuguese press ran with after their shock stoppage-time defeat by Serbia on Sunday.

Cristiano Ronaldo and co may yet prove the first part of that assessment is false in the World Cup play-offs in March, which under-fire boss Fernando Santos is still expected to be in charge for.

But the latter segment certainly rings true and therefore elevates their disappointment at not sealing automatic qualification in a group many expected them to cruise.

Portugal struggled to break the Republic of Ireland down on Thursday even before Pepe was sent off, and their worst fears were realised when Aleksandar Mitrovic netted late on in Lisbon three days later.

Ronaldo and Portugal cannot blame anyone else if they miss out on Qatar showpiece in 2022

Ronaldo and Portugal cannot blame anyone else if they miss out on Qatar showpiece in 2022

Ronaldo’s latest tantrum was well-documented and his winning mentality would have left him more frustrated than most, but he attempted to undo some of the damage with an Instagram statement.

‘The objective of being present at the 2022 World Cup is still very much alive and we know what we have to do to get there,’ he said. ‘No excuses. Portugal heading to Qatar.’  

The man has spoken. Portugal will have no one else to blame if they cannot find a way to allow Ronaldo to play a fifth straight World Cup by missing out on qualification for the first time since 1998. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Janne Andersson sent Zlatan Ibrahimovic on for Sweden just 14 minutes after his Spanish counterpart Enrique had introduced Morata.

But while one striker went on to score the winner, the other struggled to make an impact and caused physical pain to another and emotional strife for himself.

The 40-year-old AC Milan star delivered a brutal off-the-ball shoulder barge from behind on Spain full-back Cesar Azpilicueta as a corner was swung in during the last few minutes in Seville.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss the one-off semi-final of Sweden's World Cup play-off in March

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss the one-off semi-final of Sweden’s World Cup play-off in March

The Swede was not captured by television stations receiving a booking from referee Felix Brych but he was listed as having a yellow card against his name in UEFA’s official match report.

So while Chelsea defender Azpilicueta confirmed he had suffered no ill-effects from the shoulder barge, Ibrahimovic’s actions mean he will now miss the one-off semi-final of Sweden’s World Cup play-off.

Andersson’s men may be one of the seeded teams ahead of next week’s draw, but they will have to do the first bit at least without the most famous player their country has arguably ever produced. 

Jorginho

Few would begrudge Jorginho if the Chelsea and Italy midfielder is handed the Ballon d’Or after his club’s success in the Champions League and his country’s subsequent triumph at Euro 2020.

But the hero to zero saying appears specially made for Jorginho’s current situation, having faced plenty of criticism after the Azzurri spectacularly failed to seal automatic qualification for Qatar.

His detractors have come on particularly strong after he skied a late penalty against Group C winners Switzerland last week, having also failed to net a spot kick against the same opposition in the away match. 

Jorginho's missed penalty against Switzerland prevented Italy from automatically qualifying

Jorginho’s missed penalty against Switzerland prevented Italy from automatically qualifying

He was then substituted in the 0-0 draw against Northern Ireland, which is just the latest example of his inconsistency at international level.  

The team appears to play badly if he struggles, and no one else in Roberto Mancini’s squad – who are now in danger of going 12 years without appearing in a World Cup – appears to possess the technique of the Chelsea midfielder.

Francesco Totti defended him however, adding: ‘Jorginho certainly is a champion and when you see him play, it sparks joy.’

That Ballon d’Or trophy now seems destined for the hands of Robert Lewandowski or Karim Benzema, but of greater concern will be to see whether Jorginho can re-discover that joy that sparked a Euro 2020 victory in time for the play-offs.

Uruguay

If you thought Portugal and Italy had it bad, then spare a thought for Uruguay. 

Their task to reach the Qatar World Cup is nothing short of enormous after suffering a 3-0 defeat against 10-man Bolivia.

It was the fifth consecutive qualifying clash which Uruguay have failed to win – four of which ended in defeat. 

It leaves La Celeste stuck in seventh spot in the South American qualifying group, one point behind fourth and fifth spot – an intercontinental play-off position – with just four matches remaining.

Luis Suarez and Uruguay are in danger of missing out as they sit seventh in CONMEBOL qualifying

Luis Suarez and Uruguay are in danger of missing out as they sit seventh in CONMEBOL qualifying

They must face both Peru and Chile, who currently occupy fifth and sixth spots, while their other two remaining fixtures come against Venezuela and Paraguay – the two sides sat in the bottom two spots.

But the prospect of Atletico Madrid striker Luis Suarez and Manchester United forward Edinson Cavani missing out on a World Cup is now a very real prospect, with 2006 the last time Uruguay failed to make it. 

Uruguay’s coach, Oscar Tabarez, said he was not ‘throwing in the towel’. The 74-year-old added: ‘I don’t know who can ask me to do that [resign] after this time at work.’ 

Sadly the football world is rarely so forgiving.

Erling Haaland

The Borussia Dortmund is the only global star mentioned in this list who will definitely not make it to Qatar after Norway’s hopes were ended by two late Holland goals in Rotterdam.

But it is almost double punishment for the 21-year-old striker, who was not able to play any part of their final four Group G fixtures.

A failure to recover from a thigh injury in time saw him miss out on the 1-1 draw against eventual runners-up Turkey and the subsequent 2-0 victory against Montenegro in October. 

But after returning for Dortmund against Mainz, he then suffered a fresh setback with a hip flexor injury, which has ruled him out of action since facing Ajax on October 20.

Erling Haaland was injured and was unable to prevent Norway's World Cup hopes ending

Erling Haaland was injured and was unable to prevent Norway’s World Cup hopes ending

His absence however was felt to a greater extent in the latest international break, with Norway failing to score in both their disappointing draw against Latvia at home and their defeat by Holland.

His father said earlier this month he is ‘unlikely’ to play before Christmas, by which time his club could, as things stand, also be out of the Champions League.

What is for certain is that he won’t be able to mix it with the best next winter, and that perhaps is the inconsolable pain he must bear for the next few years at least. 

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