The prospect of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah and Robert Lewandowski would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, but as qualification for Qatar reaches an enticing conclusion it’s now very much a possibility.
The European play-offs get underway on Thursday evening, with 29 of the 32 available spots for Qatar to be confirmed by the time of the World Cup draw on April 1.
Two spots will be filled by the nations coming via the inter-confederation play-offs take place in June, while Ukraine’s playoff tie against Scotland has been postponed until the same month.
The big story is that one of Italy or Portugal will be dumped out in the coming days, having been drawn into the same playoff path, meaning an abundance of world class talent will be forced to watch on from the sidelines.
Meanwhile Liverpool pair Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah – who clashed during the Africa Cup of nations final in February, with the former emerging victorious – will once again do battle as Senegal and Egypt go head-to-head in a two-legged affair.
With that in mind, Sportsmail takes you through the combined XI of the best players who could miss out on a place at this year’s World Cup.
World Cup qualifying action resumes tonight as the European play-off fixtures get underway
GOALKEEPER – Edouard Mendy (Senegal)
Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has emerged as one of the best in his position worldwide since his signing from French side Rennes back in 2020.
The 30-year-old – who played a crucial role as Chelsea won a famous Champions League title last year – was acknowledged for his fine performances as he was named 2021 Best FIFA Men’s Goalkeeper in January.
Mendy also played a fundamental role as Senegal claimed a first-ever Africa Cup of Nations triumph in February, saving Mohanad Lasheen’s spot-kick before Sadio Mane sealed the trophy during a tense penalty shootout victory over Egypt.
Edouard Mendy played a pivotal role as Senegal won a first-ever Africa Cup of Nations trophy
The Chelsea star featured in five of Senegal’s six World Cup qualifying group stage clashes – the African side won five and drew one – before sitting on the bench for the final encounter, with his team already safely qualified.
But remarkably, one of football’s top talents could miss out on a place at this year’s showpiece – set to take place over November and December – with his Senegal side still needing to overcome the play-offs.
The final round – consisting of a single two-legged affair – will be played from March 25 to March 29, with Senegal and Egypt set to go head-to-head once more.
The remaining fixtures are as followed: Cameroon vs Algeria, Ghana vs Nigeria, Congo vs Morocco and Mali vs Tunisia.
RIGHT-BACK – Joao Cancelo (Portugal)
Joao Cancelo is the first of four Portuguese players in the XI, with their participation at this winter’s competition very much hanging in the balance.
Portugal finished second in their qualifying group, behind Serbia, who navigated their way to qualification without losing a single game.
Fernando Santos’ side were favourites to prevail right up until the final qualifying clash – against Serbia – where they lost 2-1 at home.
The defeat saw Portugal placed into this month’s playoffs, where they face a tricky encounter against Turkey for a place in the final against either North Macedonia or, more likely, Italy.
Joao Cancelo (left) is suspended for Portugal’s crunch playoff tie against Turkey on Thursday
Cancelo, who has starred for Premier League champions Manchester City this year, scoring one goal and assisting five in 27 appearances, has also been a key figure for Portugal throughout their qualification campaign, featuring in all but one of their eight fixtures.
The versatile full-back will have to watch on from the sidelines as Portugal play Turkey on Thursday, however, having received a suspension following his yellow card against Serbia.
Cancelo’s unfortunate run will continue if Portugal fail to prevail, having been overlooked for the squad for Russia 2018, before missing out on Euro 2020 having tested positive for Covid.
CENTRE-BACK – Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)
Perhaps more than anyone, Giorgio Chiellini will be desperate for Italy to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.
The 37-year-old almost certainly won’t get another opportunity to represent his country at a World Cup – most likely even a major tournament – with the formidable veteran coming to the end of his playing days.
Chiellini, Italy’s captain, proved an immovable force as the Azzurri claimed a famous victory over England at Wembley at last year’s European Championship final.
Captain Giorgio Chiellini played a key role as Italy claimed a historic Euro 2020 victory
It marked a phenomenal turnaround for the nation, who had previously failed to qualify for the 2018 in Russia.
Chiellini will be desperate to improve on Italy’s poor record in World Cup competition in recent years, having represented his nation both at the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, failing to go beyond the groups on both occasions.
Italy are set to play North Macedonia on Thursday, with a clash against either Portugal or Turkey awaiting.
Chiellini, though traveling with the Italy squad, might have to start from the bench, however, having only just recovered from a calf injury, playing just 45 minutes for Juventus in their 2-0 win over Salernitana last weekend.
CENTRE-BACK – Ruben Dias (Portugal)
From world-class centre-back to world-class centre-back, Manchester City and Portugal star Ruben Dias could also find himself watching the action from afar come the World Cup this winter.
We know the situation by now: Portugal play Turkey in their impending playoff clash, with either Italy or North Macedonia awaiting the winner.
Unfortunately, both for Dias and Portugal, their qualification is now entirely out of the centre-back’s hands, with his long-term hamstring injury ruling him out the playoff clashes.
It’s not just Dias who misses out, however, with centre-back partner Pepe also absent through injury. Indeed, Portugal may have plenty of firepower up top with Cristiano Ronaldo and Diogo Jota in good form, but at the back their situation is less than ideal.
Ruben Dias will miss Portugal’s World Cup playoff clashes after suffering a hamstring injury
For Dias, it would be a bitter blow if Portugal failed to qualify in his absence, having sat on the bench throughout the entirety of his country’s 2018 World Cup campaign in Russia.
Portugal made it through the group stages but were defeated 2-1 in the round of 16 by Uruguay.
Dias has been one of City’s most successful signings in recent years, despite carrying a whopping £65million price tag, helping the Manchester club to the Premier League title last season and remaining hugely significant in their ongoing title defence this season.
Whether he’ll be at this winter’s World Cup, however; that remains to be seen.
LEFT-BACK – Andy Robertson (Scotland)
Andy Robertson is in the hunt for a historic quadruple with high-flying Liverpool still in the hunt for Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League success, having already clinched the Carabao Cup title.
But also on the agenda for the marauding wing-back is World Cup qualification, with Scotland looking to cement a place in the tournament for the first time since France 1998.
Scotland finished second in their World Cup qualifying group, behind only Denmark, who swiftly wrapped up qualification with nine wins and just the single defeat throughout their 10 games.
They come up against Ukraine in the playoffs in a fixture that has been moved to June at the earliest, due to the ongoing Russian invasion.
Captain Andy Robertson is looking to guide Scotland to their first World Cup since France 1998
Should Scotland come through the clash, they will come up against either Wales or Austria, who play their playoff fixture on Thursday.
Scotland will instead play Poland in a friendly, which an injured Robertson will be absent for.
Robertson, who captains the side, will be desperate to guide Scotland to a historic qualification, but the Liverpool full-back insists people’s safety comes before anything.
‘We have to realise that there are things more important than football and this is what this is,’ he said, regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
‘When Covid hit the world, that became more important than the game and this is another example. People’s safety has to come first, more than anything.’
CENTRE-MID – Jorginho (Italy)
Moving onto the midfield, and one of the world’s best, Jorginho, could be another high-profile absentee.
The Chelsea star was key to Italy’s Euro 2020 victory – despite missing a penalty in the final shootout against England – and will again look to play a central role later this year.
Despite initially struggling upon his 2018 switch to Chelsea, the midfielder has since become an integral component in a highly successful team under Thomas Tuchel.
Euro 2020 star Jorginho, 30, will need to be on top form as Italy face North Macedonia
The Italian was named 2021-21 UEFA Men’s Player of the Year after winning the European Championship and Champions League in the same campaign.
Manager Roberto Mancini will need Jorginho at his very best when they come up against North Macedonia on Thursday.
Jorginho has spoke recently of ‘dreaming’ of World Cup qualification, having never played in the competition before.
At the age of 30, it could be the midfielder’s last chance to do so.
CENTRE-MID – Bruno Fernandes (Portugal)
Bruno Fernandes has 88 minutes of World Cup football to his name, coming over two appearances at Russia 2018, but he could have to wait another four years for more.
The Portuguese star, as stated, has a fierce battle ahead, with Portugal squaring off against Turkey on Friday in their playoff semi-final.
Fernandes left a deflated Manchester United side, who haven’t played since being knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, and issued a rallying call as he turned his attention to international football.
Bruno Fernandes has been preparing for Portugal’s crunch World Cup playoff fixtures
‘On the way back home,’ he wrote on Instagram. ‘Now more than ever, we all need to be united. We’ll do everything to get to the World Cup. Let’s go.’
Fernandes has perhaps not been at his destructive best for Portugal of late, scoring just one goal and providing two assists in his side’s eight World Cup qualifying clashes.
The influential midfielder also failed to register a goal or an assists at Euro 2020, where Portugal were knocked out in the round of 16 by Belgium.
Fernandes, particularly in the absence of Portugal’s primary centre-back pairing, will be required to perform if they are to qualify for Qatar, however.
RIGHT-WING – Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Mohamed Salah perhaps already has one hand on the 2022 Ballon d’Or trophy, having started the year in scintillating form.
The winger is near certain to claim the Premier League Golden Boot, sat on 20 goals after 27 games. His Egypt side also came agonisingly close to AFCON glory, only to be beaten on penalties by Senegal.
However, and it’s a big however, the world’s in-form star could soon be out of the World Cup equation, with Egypt to take on Senegal once more on Friday evening.
Mohamed Salah was largely underwhelming four years ago at the 2018 Russia World Cup
Egypt fell short during the group stages four years ago, and though Salah scored in their defeats to Russia and Saudi Arabia, having been left out of the side that lost the opener to Uruguay, he underwhelmed at the tournament.
Off-field problems contributed to Egypt’s woes: Salah was left furious with the Egyptian FA after they used his picture – without permission – next to a rival sponsor on the team plane. The forward subsequently opted against celebrating either of his goals.
The prolific marksman will be desperate, on a personal and team level, to perform better than they did in Russia, if they can get there at all.
Standing in his way, once again, is Liverpool team-mate Mane, who scored the decisive penalty to seal the AFCON title on that fateful evening.
LEFT WING – Sadio Mane (Senegal)
Of course, next in the list is Salah’s club team-mate Mane, who led Senegal to their historic AFCON triumph earlier in the year.
Mane, like Salah, was involved in Russia four years ago; and similarly, the winger will have left the tournament dissatisfied with his performances.
The forward contributed just one assist as he played the full 90 in all three of Senegal’s group stage clashes, with the nation finishing third behind Colombia and Japan and sent home early doors.
Sadio Mane scored the decisive penalty as Senegal claimed the Africa Cup of Nations title
It was a different story for Mane at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, however, scoring three goals and assisting two in seven outings, not including his tournament-winning penalty in the final.
Mane was also lethal in front of goal – as he has been in the Premier League this season – during Senegal’s World Cup group stage qualifiers, scoring three in five.
Once again, it’s attacker vs attacker, Liverpool star vs Liverpool star; the only question is, who will come out on top?
FORWARD – Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Moving onto the front line, and it’s a big one: should Portugal miss out on a place for this winter’s tournament, it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that we’ll never see Cristiano Ronaldo at another World Cup.
Despite a timely reminder of his undoubted and unrelenting quality with his recent hat-trick against Tottenham, having turned 37 in February the forward is undeniably in the twilight years of his career.
Similarly to his United team-mate, Ronaldo has also taken to Instagram ahead of Portugal’s mammoth clashes, insisting his side will ‘fight’ until the very end.
Cristiano Ronaldo could be the most notable of all the World Cup absentees this winter
‘Total focus on the 2022 World Cup,’ he wrote. ‘Proud, as always, to represent Portugal.
‘We know that the path will not be easy, we have the utmost respect for the opponents we will face and who share the same goals as us. But together, we will fight to put Portugal in its rightful place. Let’s do it.’
Ronaldo will be 41 by the time of the 2026 tournament in the United States, Canada and Mexico and ensuring he is granted a World Cup swansong in Qatar will undoubtedly be at the forefront of the great forward’s mind.
Remarkably, should Portugal qualify, Ronaldo will be heading into his fifth World Cup. He is yet to go beyond the semi-final, which Portugal achieved on his first outing in 2006.
FORWARD – Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Completing the lineup is Robert Lewandowski, who at 33 could also be fighting for his final opportunity to compete at a World Cup.
Lewandowski and Poland are set for a one-match shootout against either Sweden or Czech Republic, after their semi-final playoff opponents Russia were kicked out of the competition.
Should the stars align, we could see an enticing battle between Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on March 29 with the two footballing titans desperate to make a splash in Qatar.
Robert Lewandowski’s Poland will face Sweden or Czech Republic for a place in the World Cup
Lewandowski will be keen to improve on a largely disappointing outing in Russia four years ago – his one and only appearance at a World Cup – where the forward failed to hit the back of the net in all three of Poland’s games.
Poland defeated Japan in their final outing, but losses to Senegal and Colombia saw them finish bottom of their respective group.
Typically, Lewandowski will enter the match in scintillating form, sat on 31 goals in 27 Bundesliga outings, 11 ahead of his closest competitor Patrik Schick on 20.
Sportsmail’s final team is above, in a 4-4-2 set-up, ahead of the impending qualifying clashes