Ronaldo, Salah and the stars facing make-or-break battles to seal World Cup spot

Fight for place in Qatar finals hots up with likes of Portugal, Sweden, Uruguay and Egypt preparing for crucial matches

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Anybody who can remember watching a World Cup that did not have Cristiano Ronaldo taking part in it would have to be well into their 20s by now. Those a little older might even remember vividly how leaderless his national team, Portugal, looked the last time they had to go to a World Cup without him.

That was way back in 2002, when two defeats in the group stage, to the USA and to South Korea, put the Portuguese on an early flight home, and one their key strikers, Joao Pinto into a four-match ban from all football for plunging his fist into the stomach of a referee.

Happily for Portuguese pride, a 17-year-old with magical gifts and a fierce will to win was shortly to make his senior debut with Sporting and, although the national team were not immune to losses of temper in the two decades that followed, they would be accompanied to every major tournament after 2002 armed with the footballer who has set peerless standards for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Ronaldo, 37 last month, is still doing it for Manchester United. He scored a hat-trick in his most recent Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotspur that needed a late goal from the veteran to secure a 3-2 win. He was doing it for Portugal on the opening weekend of the 2018 World Cup, when the last goal - in the 88th minute - of his hat-trick against Spain earned his team a 3-3 draw.

This week, Portugal present him with another challenge of brinkmanship. They are one of the 11 teams in the new-format play-offs that will determine the last three European places at Qatar 2022. He knows the drill but not the novel system.

In the Ronaldo era, Portugal have twice before faced play-offs to reach World Cups, but both the format and the opposition in 2009 and in 2013 looked kinder than the scenario facing Ronaldo’s team now.

Against Bosnia - for a place at the 2010 tournament - Portugal triumphed in the home and away legs without needing Ronaldo, who had an ankle injury at the time.

They played Sweden for a place at Brazil 2014, again over a conventional two legs, and won both matches. A Ronaldo goal sealed the home leg. He scored the second and third goals of a hat-trick in Solna after Sweden took the lead in the second leg - courtesy of a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic - as Portugal ran out 4-2 winners on aggregate.

The map for Path C of Uefa’s play-offs for Qatar 2022 is quirkier. First, there’s Thursday one-leg semi-final in Porto against Turkey. Win that and either Italy or North Macedonia, who meet each other in Sicily this week, will come to Portugal to face Ronaldo and what probably ranks as the best set of supporting forwards he has known through his 184-cap international career. They include an in-form Joao Felix, along with Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Bruno Fernandes.

That alone is a quartet of players who would enrich any World Cup. But Qatar 2022 can not accommodate every star. Across the various play-offs and last mini-league matches over the next 10 days, several notables will say farewell to their World Cup dream.

Luis Suarez and Uruguay could miss out on reaching this year's World Cup finals in Qatar. Reuters

In Path B of the Uefa play-offs, where Poland meet either Sweden or the Czech Republic in the ‘final’, it will be either Robert Lewadowski or Ibrahimovic. And it may be both out, if the Czechs win their semi and then beat Poland, who are straight through to the final due to the suspension of Russia from all football competitions.

In South America, where there are two matchdays remaining, two qualifying spots and one intercontinental play-off berth are still open. Ecuador, third behind already-qualified Brazil and Argentina, will at the very least gain the play-off slot, if not better, which means at least one country from James Rodriguez’s Colombia, Alexis Sanchez’s Chile or the Uruguay of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will not be in Qatar.

Africa’s brutal sort-out – five simple home-and-away duels to decide all the continent’s World Cup entrants – has either Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane making the cut, Egypt having drawn Senegal in what will be a repeat of last month’s Africa Cup of Nations final, won on penalties by Senegal.

No less highly-charged is the Ghana-Nigeria joust, while the 2017 African Champions, Cameroon, meet the 2019 Afcon winners, Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria, in a scenario that Ronaldo, for one, would recognise as uncomfortably stark. His Portugal were European champions in 2016. Italy became the European championship’s next holders last summer. Only one of them can make it to Qatar.

Egypt and Mohamed Salah, right, will take on their Africa Cup of Nations final conquerors Senegal for a place in Qatar. AP
Updated: March 23, 2022, 2:47 AM