MATCHDAY: France opens World Cup defense, Wales at Belgium

March 23, 2021 GMT

A look at what’s happening in 2022 World Cup qualifying in Europe on Wednesday:


Portugal has a depleted defense for its match against Azerbaijan, with goalkeeper Rui Patricio and defenders Pepe and Raphael Guerreiro having been dropped from the squad because of injuries. Guerreiro was the latest to be cut from the team on Tuesday after failing a medical test. Portugal is the home team but the game will be played in Turin, Italy, because of the coronavirus pandemic situation in Portugal. Stephen Kenny is still waiting for his first win as Ireland coach and faces Serbia in his ninth match, looking to guide the country to its first World Cup since 2002.



France begins its World Cup defense against Ukraine at Stade de France with the attention on two strikers — Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe. The latter became the youngest player — at 22 — to score 100 goals in the French league with two against Lyon for Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday, while Giroud is struggling to even get a game for Chelsea. Yet the 34-year-old Giroud is closing in on the all-time scoring record for France. Giroud has already surpassed former France great Michel Platini’s haul of 41 goals by three, leaving just Thierry Henry’s national record of 51 to aim for. Coach Didier Deschamps also recalled Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembele after an absence of more than two years, giving France another option in attack. Deschamps noted that the 23-year-old Dembele was scoring goals again, though there is room for improvement. Finland plays Bosnia-Herzegovina in the other game.


Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team which finished third at the 2018 World Cup, looks to end a four-match winless run against Wales which stretches back to 2013 and including a quarterfinal loss at Euro 2016. Kevin De Bruyne has been in imperious form for Manchester City and the midfielder provides the biggest danger to Wales. By contrast, Wales star Gareth Bale has endured a mixed season back on loan at Tottenham from Real Madrid, scoring six goals since February but too often finding himself on the bench. Estonia plays the Czech Republic in the other group match.


The build-up to the Netherlands’ trip to Turkey has been dominated by coach Frank de Boer’s striker selections. De Boer defended his decision to pick Luuk de Jong of Sevilla ahead of in-form Wout Weghorst, who has scored 17 Bundesliga goals this season for Wolfsburg. De Boer told national broadcaster NOS that not including Weghorst in his squad was “far and away the most difficult decision I had to make.” But he added: “Luuk has never disappointed me.” Norway has an easy start against Gibraltar with Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland key to sending his country to a first World Cup since 1998 — before the 20-year-old forward was born. Latvia also hosts Montenegro.



Croatia starts away to Slovenia with the same captain and coach that led the team to the final in 2018. Now 35, midfielder Luka Modrić is without longtime creative partner Ivan Rakitić, who ended his international career. Coach Zlatko Dalić has since led the team to the postponed 2020 European Championship tournament. Two more Euro 2020 teams, Russia and Slovakia, also start with away games. Russia, which as 2018 World Cup host lost in the quarterfinals to Croatia, is at Malta and Slovakia plays at Cyprus. The Russian team can be called “Russia” in the qualifiers but not at the finals tournament. A Court of Arbitration for Sport punishment for state-backed doping means the team would likely have to be called “Russian Football Union Team” in Qatar.


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