The World Cup in Qatar is around the corner, with the host nation kicking it all off Nov. 20 when they take on Ecuador.
All 32 finalists are making their closing plans for the tournament, hoping that star players don’t get struck down by injury and head into the World Cup in top form. Away from that, there are plenty of players who are desperately hoping to break into their country’s 26-man squad, which has to be named by Nov. 13.
Each week, we’ll take a look at the favourites to see how they are shaping up and also check in with other nations as their players either shine or struggle.
With the final friendlies and UEFA Nations League fixtures over with, how are the top teams and players looking?
Fixtures: Iran (Nov. 21), United States (Nov. 25), Wales (Nov. 29)
Phil Foden: The 22-year-old’s place in England‘s starting lineup for the World Cup is not quite set in stone but a hat trick for Manchester City in Sunday’s 6-3 derby win over Manchester United was a timely and devastating reminder of his attacking prowess. Meanwhile, Jarrod Bowen‘s hopes of securing a place in Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad were boosted by a dynamic display featuring the second goal in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Wolves.
Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho: The United duo face a race against time to make England’s World Cup squad, and so the pair’s subdued showing against City was a blow to their hopes. Trent Alexander-Arnold was caught out defensively once again in Liverpool‘s 3-3 draw at home to Brighton, likely reinforcing Southgate’s doubts over his reliability out of possession. Ivan Toney also missed a good late chance in a goal-less draw at Bournemouth which could have further pressed his claims. — James Olley
Mark Ogden reacts to the notable absentees from Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad.
Fixtures: Australia (Nov. 22), Denmark (Nov. 26), Tunisia (Nov. 30)
Wissam Ben Yedder: After being dropped and not called up by Didier Deschamps in the last France squad, the Monaco striker knows that he will have to be performing really well until the World Cup squad is announced to be included in it. His hat trick against Nantes showed that he can still do a job with a different profile to Kylian Mbappe or Karim Benzema up front. It looks like it will be Ben Yedder or Olivier Giroud for the number 9 third spot.
William Saliba: The Arsenal centre back was impressive once again against Tottenham in his first North London Derby on Saturday. At only 21 and for his first season in the Premier League, he put up some incredible numbers once again and as Deschamps was watching him on television, he would have scored some valuable points for a place on the plane to Qatar.
Randal Kolo Muani: The Frankfurt striker was sent off in his team’s 2-0 win against Bundesliga leaders Union Berlin after two yellow cards, tarnishing his good performance overall. Deschamps likes him but he is still young and lacks experience as we saw with his red card and his place in the World Cup squad still a long shot right now.
Raphael Varane: It is not so much the humiliating defeat suffered by Manchester United against Manchester City on Sunday that is the problem here because Varane got injured quite early in this match. The centre back has been so good in the last few weeks and an injury, even if it is not a serious one, is the last thing he needs less than 50 days before France’s first game in the World Cup.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
Injured players are starting to come back for Didier Deschamps which is all he is praying for right now. Hugo Lloris played with Tottenham, Benzema with Real Madrid, Adrien Rabiot with Juventus, while N’Golo Kante, Ibrahima Konate and Kingsley Coman are back at training or not far from it. — Julien Laurens
Fixtures: Japan (Nov. 23), Spain (Nov. 27), Costa Rica (Dec. 1)
Jamal Musiala: The Bayern Munich youngster has claimed a spot in Hansi Flick’s starting XI thanks to his incredible composure and creativity on the ball. If any German midfielder can create magic at the moment, then it is the 19-year-old.
Kai Havertz: While the Chelsea midfielder hasn’t quite as impressed as Musiala recently, he is undoubtedly one of his nation’s hopes for the World Cup. His display against England underscored once again how Havertz has grown into an attacking leader for Germany.
Marco Reus: It is the same old story with Reus. Once he shows his true abilities, another injury is just around the corner. The 33-year-old has not been able to help Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga recently and also could not make a positive impression during the international break.
Serge Gnabry: The winger has been almost invisible since the start of the season. While Gnabry still possesses the skills to drive into the box with speed and force, defences are often able to neutralise him completely. Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman are more promising options for the winger roles in Bayern Munich’s lineup.
Nico Schlotterbeck: Following his move to Borussia Dortmund, the young defender has not been able to meet expectations. Sloppy build-up plays and his missteps in defensive duels, as seen in Germany’s game at Wembley Stadium in which Schlotterbeck caused a penalty against Jude Bellingham, make him a liability for both club and national team.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
Looking at the results in 2022, it seems that Germany are not able to beat opponents. They have drawn with Italy, the Netherlands and twice with England. Flick has to figure out how his team can bring home wins, otherwise Germany could make an early exit at the World Cup again. The 1-0 loss to Hungary in September has been the first defeat during Flick’s tenure as national team coach and has raised even more concerns. — Constantin Eckner
Fixtures: Costa Rica (Nov. 23), Germany (Nov. 27), Japan (Dec. 1)
Alvaro Morata: There’s little doubt now that Morata will be Spain’s first choice centre-forward come the World Cup. Saturday’s well-taken goal in Atletico’s 2-0 away win at Sevilla was Morata’s fourth in seven league appearances this season. Luis Enrique has always been a believer — sticking with him despite over-the-top criticism from fans and the media during Euro 2020 — and with Morata now impressing every week in LaLiga, and no convincing alternatives, there’s no real debate left.
Nico Williams: Williams followed a dream international break — setting up Morata for Spain’s late winner in Portugal to seal their place in the UEFA Nations League final four — by starring for Athletic in their 4-0 LaLiga win over Almeria on Friday. His cross was nodded in by brother Inaki for Athletic’s opener and he later showed perseverance and invention to score himself with a clever, toe poke finish in the second half. There’s plenty of competition as a wide forward in the Spain squad, but right now, the momentum is with Williams. — Alex Kirkland
Fixtures: Senegal (Nov. 21), Ecuador (Nov. 25), Qatar (Nov. 29)
Jasper Cillessen: Who will be goalkeeper for The Netherlands is one of the toughest questions to answer heading into the FIFA World Cup. Former Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen didn’t play in the last two international matches. Remko Pasveer got a chance to show his capabilities. But this weekend it was Cillessen who proved he is the prime candidate with a very good performance against Feyenoord.
Tyrell Malacia: The left-back had a horrible weekend being thrashed by Man City and he played a vital role, in negative aspect. The English press gave him a “1” for his performance and the chances he will pass by Daley Blind to claim a spot in the first eleven in Qatar seem to be getting more and more unlikely. — Okko van de Berkt
Fixtures: Wales (Nov. 21), England (Nov. 25), IR Iran (Nov. 29)
Ricardo Pepi: After some anonymous performances for the U.S. during the international window, Pepi was once again on the scoresheet for Groningen, this time in a 4-1 loss to AZ Alkmaar. He now has two goals and an assist in his first three matches since being loaned out by Bundesliga side Augsburg. It’s still to be determined if Pepi makes the final roster, but continuing to find the net will give U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter something to think about.
Gio Reyna: There was a sigh of relief when it was announced by Dortmund manager Edin Terzic that Reyna would miss “7-10 days” due to a recurrence of a hamstring injury the player sustained against Saudi Arabia. The thinking was that it could have been worse. But looked at another way, the latest injury casts further doubt on just how much Berhalter will be able to count on Reyna at the World Cup. At this stage, Reyna can’t really be expected to start a match. Berhalter will be hoping that Reyna endures no further setbacks, not a sure thing by any means.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
How the country is looking for the World Cup — Reyna’s injury highlights the greatest area of concern for the U.S. just six weeks out from when the U.S. will gather together for the World Cup: health. None of Fulham‘s Antonee Robinson, Valencia‘s Yunus Musah, Lille‘s Tim Weah and Crystal Palace‘s Chris Richards — all expected to play key roles in Qatar, if healthy — so much as made the gameday roster last weekend. The clock is ticking. — Jeff Carlisle
Alejandro Moreno is skeptical of the United States finding confidence to win games before the World Cup starts in November.
Fixtures: Poland (Nov. 22), Argentina (Nov. 26), Saudi Arabia (Nov. 30)
Uriel Antuna: A memorable week for club and country for Antuna. Last Saturday in a Liga MX clash against his former club Chivas, Antuna scored the first goal for Cruz Azul in an eventual 2-1 win, helping move the team up to the No. 7 seed for the upcoming playoffs. Days earlier on Sept 27, the winger was impressive in an international friendly for Mexico, and despite a 3-2 loss to Colombia, the 25-year-old was an influential part of a fluid and threatening frontline for Mexico. A more significant role for Mexico in the World Cup awaits.
Jonathan Orozco: Once a regular goalkeeper call-up for Mexico manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Orozco has quickly lost relevancy with poor performances for Club Tijuana that have left him out of the national team picture since early 2022. Issues at the Liga MX level have continued and after an underwhelming 2-2 draw with Club Leon last Sunday, it’s difficult to imagine the 36-year-old returning to Martino’s squad when he won’t be involved in the playoffs of Mexico’s top flight.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
An in-form Antuna is much-needed good news for the national team that is searching for a suitable replacement for injured star winger Jesus “Tecatito” Corona. That said, the unconvincing and narrow 1-0 win over Peru, as well as the 3-2 collapse against Colombia in the latest international break, all appears as one step forward and two steps back for Mexico. With Argentina cruising through international games and Poland‘s Robert Lewandowski continuing his great goal-scoring run for Barcelona, things don’t look exactly rosy for Mexico in the group stage. — Cesar Hernandez
Fixtures: Serbia (Nov. 24), Switzerland (Nov. 28), Cameroon (Dec. 2)
Alejandro Moreno explains why Brazil are the clear-cut favorites to win the World Cup in Qatar.
Roberto Firmino: When Brazil were putting together an impressive sequence of victories last season, Firmino did not feature at all, a victim of injuries and of loss of form. Liverpool‘s signing of Darwin Nunez in the summer threatened to leave Firmino lower down the pecking order with his club, and thus further away from Brazil’s World Cup squad. Half an hour off the bench in the recent friendly against Ghana was a promising sign — even more so was his rescue act when Liverpool looked in danger of losing to Brighton at the weekend. The versatile and intelligent striker seems to be playing himself back into form and contention at precisely the right time. Brazil coach Tite would like to find space for him in the squad, not least because Firmino’s characteristics make him the best available replacement for Neymar should injury or suspension strike. And events of the last few days would seem to be taking Firmino closer to Qatar. — Tim Vickery
Fixtures: Qatar (Nov. 20), Netherlands (Nov. 25), Senegal (Nov. 29)
Ecuador now have to sweat on a verdict from the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Chile claim that Ecuador’s right-back Byron Castillo is ineligible since he was born in Colombia. If the points from the games which Castillo played are awarded to the opponents, Chile jump from 7th in the qualification table to 4th, and take Ecuador’s slot. FIFA swatted away Chile’s argument in June, and were equally dismissive on appeal last month. It would be extraordinary if CAS were to see things differently — after all, Ecuador are due to kick the tournament off next month, and with tickets and corporate packages sold, switching one of the teams would cause plenty of problems. There is no great unease in Ecuador about the situation. But until the CAS verdict comes down, there might be one or two butterflies in the stomach. — Tim Vickery
Fixtures: Netherlands (Nov. 21), Qatar (Nov. 25), Ecuador (Nov. 29)
Fode Ballo-Toure: He is in pole position to start at fullback at the World Cup. Ballo-Toure scored his first AC Milan goal, finishing from close range in the 93rd minute as the Rossoneri defeated Empoli 3-1. The defender acknowledged that he shed a tear when the ball went in, and his form can help Senegal turn an area of weakness into an area of strength. Ismaila Sarr, criticised after his profligate performances during the international break, responded in style for Watford — scoring and registering an assist as they trounced Stoke City 4-0.
Nampalys Mendy: Such a lynchpin of Senegal’s Africa Cup of Nations-winning squad, Mendy was again overlooked as Leicester City defeated Nottingham Forest 4-0 on Monday. The midfield destroyer has played just 61 minutes — in the League Cup — so far this term, and didn’t even make the Foxes’ matchday squad for the East Midlands derby.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING? The big concern to emerge from Senegal’s international break was their inability to find the net consistently, so Sarr’s outstanding display for Watford will come as some succour for head coach Aliou Cisse. Even more encouraging will be Sadio Mane‘s fourth goal of the season for Bayern Munich as they thumped Bayer Leverkusen 4-0, ending a Bundesliga goal drought that stretched back to August 21st. — Ed Dove
Fixtures: Denmark (Nov. 22), Australia (Nov. 26), France (Nov. 30)
Ellyes Skhiri: Imperious at the base of FC Koln’s midfield as they stunned Borussia Dortmund 3-2, Skhiri delivered the kind of committed display that Tunisia will need from him in Qatar. He made four notable defensive contributions, and used the ball effectively as Koln’s fine start to the season continued.
Dylan Bronn: He was sent off in the first half as Tunisia were pummeled by Brazil during the international break and lasted little longer upon his return to club action, when he was hauled off at half time in Salernitana‘s 5-0 demolition at Sassuolo. Bronn was guilty of timid defending when he failed to close down Armand Lauriente who duly scored the hosts’ opener, and was replaced at the break with the game already beyond I Granata. — Ed Dove
Fixtures: Croatia (Nov. 23), Belgium (Nov. 27), Canada (Dec. 1)
Ayoub El Kaabi and Aboukhlal Zakaria: With Youssef En-Nesyri‘s form deserting him, Morocco need to unearth a credible goal threat between now and the World Cup. El Kaabi and Zakaria each scored and assisted — for Hatayspor and Toulouse respectively — this weekend, but can they maintain this level of performance between now and Qatar to start the Atlas Lions’ opener against Croatia?
Hakim Ziyech: The Chelsea man made his triumphant return to action with Morocco during the international break, and looked sharp in their 2-0 victory over Chile. However, his performances for the Atlas Lions weren’t enough to convince Graham Potter to give him a look-in as Chelsea travelled away to Crystal Palace. Ziyech, an unused sub in that match, hasn’t played in the Premier League since Aug. 30, and may need to rely on cup and continental competitions to ensure he’s prepared for the World Cup.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
Morocco looked the most dangerous of Africa’s five World Cup contenders during the international break, although the picture would be even rosier if the likes of Ziyech, En-Nesyri and Noussair Mazraoui were heading into the tournament on better form. — Ed Dove
Fixtures: Switzerland (Nov. 24), Serbia (Nov. 28), Brazil (Dec. 2)
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa: He sat out a testing international break for Cameroon in order to preserve his fitness for the challenges to come. Based on the evidence of this weekend, the rest did him some good, as the ex-Fulham man scored twice during an excellent display as Napoli saw off Torino 3-1. Considering the 26-year-old had only ever scored two league goals in his entire career before this weekend, it’s safe to say he’s entering into some fine form as the World Cup approaches.
Georges-Kevin Nkoudou: Besiktas were without the winger for their derby with Fenerbahce, with the Turkish giants revealing before the match that the wideman had picked up an injury during the international break. Nkoudou underwent an MRI scan and has been diagnosed with a thigh strain. Andre Onana continues to wait for his Serie A debut at Internazionale, although there’s increasing pressure on Simone Inzaghi to change that following Samir Handanovic‘s deteriorating form.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
As with Thomas Partey for Ghana, so Cameroon will be massively boosted by the presence of an in-form, goal-scoring Zambo Anguissa, whose value in the heart of the midfield cannot be underestimated. — Ed Dove
Fixtures: Ghana (Nov. 24), Uruguay (Nov. 28), South Korea (Dec. 2)
Rafael Leao: The AC Milan player has been excellent this season in Serie A, scoring four goals and making four assists in seven games. Although the 23-year-old has not made the same impression on the national stage, he could be one of the breakout stars of the World Cup tournament.
Cristiano Ronaldo: The 37-year-old did not make an appearance off the bench in United’s dismal loss to Man City this weekend. The Portugal captain has been left out of United’s last five matches and with little to no playing time, head coach Fernando Santos will be concerned that the country’s top scorer of all time will be below par come November. — SherShah Atif
Fixtures: Portugal (Nov. 24), South Korea (Nov. 28), Uruguay (Dec. 2)
Thomas Partey: After withdrawing from Ghana’s team to face Brazil in a friendly during the international break, Partey was fit enough to start Saturday’s North London Derby, and proceeded to open the scoring with a curling 22-yard effort. This was the highlight of a commanding display as the 29-year-old silenced any fears about his fitness — for now at least. Inaki Williams was also among the goals for Athletic Bilbao.
Andy Yiadom: The Reading skipper was withdrawn through injury just after the hour mark in the Royals’ victory over Huddersfield Town, with the club later revealing he’d picked up a calf injury. The defender will now face a spell on the sidelines — and is definitely out of Tuesday’s meeting with Norwich City — although the full extent of his injury hasn’t been revealed. His teammate and compatriot Abdul Rahman Baba — on loan from Chelsea — is also missing with a hamstring complaint.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
Partey’s resounding return to form and fitness comes as a major boost to a Ghana side who looked lost without him as they were thoroughly outclassed by the Selecao. His experience, midfield authority and — ideally — his goals may represent Ghana’s best assets as they look to escape from a tricky group. — Ed Dove
Fixtures: Uruguay (Nov. 24), Ghana (Nov. 28), Portugal (Dec. 2)
Kim Min-jae: When Kim missed the last World Cup through injury, it didn’t seem that huge of a blow given he was still an up-and-coming prospect playing domestically for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at the point. Fast forward four years, the imposing centre-back is shaping up as a pivotal player for South Korea with each passing week. Standing at 1.9 metres, Kim’s brilliant start to life at Napoli has been a key factor behind them currently leading Serie A, and he is already being linked with a move elsewhere just two months after arriving in Italy.
Jeong Woo-yeong: Having began his career at Bayern Munich, expectations surrounding Jeong have always been high but it would not be overly harsh to say that he has yet to deliver on his potential at the age of 23. Although still plying his trade in the Bundesliga, the winger has struggled to force his way into the starting XI of a Freiburg outfit that have been punching above their weight thus far this season. While Jeong is still likely to make Paulo Bento’s final squad, a player of his talent should be playing a far bigger role that he likely will in Qatar.
HOW ARE THEY LOOKING?
Considering South Korea will be coming up against the likes Portugal and Uruguay, they will not only need Son Heung-min to be firing on all cylinders up front but also require the defence to hold up against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Darwin Nunez. The brilliant form of Kim bodes well for their prospects. — Gabriel Tan