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World Cup - Football: Old faces look to prolong Qatar dreams

Thursday is primed for drama with four more European nations set to see their World Cup 2022 dreams ended as the qualifying playoffs get underway.

All four ties kick-off at 19:45 and each carry their own intrigue and subplots, including the inevitability that, for some, it will be the end of the road on the international stage.

However, for others, it will mark the continuation of a dream and one more shot at qualification in Tuesday's second-round finals.

One last chance for Ronaldo?

The only thing missing from Cristiano Ronaldo's glittering CV is a World Cup winner's medal. The Portuguese has done everything of note in the club game, as well as being part of the Selecao squad that triumphed at Euro 2016.

However, for a global icon, his lack of success at World Cups has been frustrating, with a semi-final showing in 2006 the best he has to offer for his efforts.

At 37, this year's tournament in Qatar is arguably Ronaldo's final chance to lift the trophy but before that, his team need to qualify, with Turkey first up on Thursday in Porto.

Portugal are just 4/11 to win in 90 minutes but face a team who lost just once in qualification, albeit in a weak-looking Group G, with a better reflection on Turkey’s form arguably being their poor showings at Euro 2020.

A 0-0 with the Republic of Ireland in their penultimate Group A game didn't seem enough to derail Portugal's progress. However, they then lost 2-1 at home to Serbia and now have to do things the hard way.

With Ronaldo taking his international tally to 115 during qualifying, he remains a real threat and is 2/1 to score first against one of the few nations he is yet to net against in his career.

Turkey have scored in their last seven competitive games but those have been against middling opposition and despite Ronaldo's influence, Portugal boss Fernando Santos' instinct is always to defend.

Santos saw his side keep clean sheets in half of their qualifiers and with Turkey netting just once at the Euros, a home win to nil at 6/5 might not be too far away.

Next up, Italy?

The winner of that tie could host Italy and it feels strange that either or both Ronaldo and the European champions may not be in Qatar.

Spain were the side to finally end the Azzurri's 37-game unbeaten run in October. They were then made to pay for their profligacy in the following month's qualifiers, drawing 0-0 in Northern Ireland, having missed a late penalty to tie 1-1 with Switzerland in their penultimate match.

As a result, the Swiss finished top of Group C and Roberto Mancini's men now face North Macedonia in Palermo for the privilege to face either Portugal or Turkey.

Italy are 2/11 to win in 90 minutes, with North Macedonia, who are aiming for their first World Cup as an independent nation after debuting at the Euros last summer, out at 11/1.

The Risovi look to be a coming force in international football and beat Germany in Group J before eventually finishing second behind Die Mannschaft.

Having won three of their last four qualifiers by an aggregate of 12-1, there will be confidence in Bobi Milevski's squad, but they are facing a grizzled Italian team with a combined 228-caps worth of Leonardo Bonucci and Georgio Chiellini to break down.

A home win to zero in Siciliy is 4/6 and if Italy need to hang their hat on one player, Ciro Immobile might be the man. The Lazio striker remains derided in some quarters but has netted 21 times this season in Serie A, a tally that sees him sit joint top of the Capocannoniere charts with Juventus' Dusan Vlahovic.

At 32, this could be the striker's last chance to shine at a World Cup and he is 11/4 to break the deadlock for what might prove the only goal of a cagey clash.

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Home record gives Wales hope

How do you build momentum and confidence if you are a (relatively) small nation? Well, the usual answer is to make your home ground a fortress.

While it is impossible to argue against the majesty of the Principality Stadium, it can be a tough place to play when not packed to capacity and Wales' move to the Cardiff City Stadium has undoubtedly paid dividends.

The smaller Cardiff crowd always get behind their heroes and it is clearly a factor they can call upon when the Dragons look to extend their 16-game unbeaten home run against Austria.

Their streak stretches back to 2018 and includes a 1-1 draw in qualifying Group E against Belgium.

Austria could only finish fourth behind Denmark, Scotland and Israel in Group F and have made it this far courtesy of their Nations League exploits.

For all their talent, Austria still struggle to gel, but Franco Foda's side can produce on the big stage and were unfortunate not to beat eventual champions Italy in the last-16 of Euro 2020.

However, they have only beaten minnows Moldova and the Faroe Islands away from home since then and may again fail to pull things together.

In fact, Wales could be the price of the night at 7/4 and it would be no surprise to see Gareth Bale step up. The 32-year-old was left out of Real Madrid's squad for Sunday's 4-0 El Clasico defeat due to back pain but has trained in full with his country and is 7/4 in the anytime market.

Injury worries for Czechs

Quarter finalists at Euro 2020, Czech Republic could only finish third in qualifying behind Belgium and Wales and head to Sweden on Thursday without their main inspiration over the summer.

Striker Patrik Schick netted five times at the Euros to tie Ronaldo as the tournament's top scorer and kicked on in the Bundesliga by netting 20 goals to date this season for Bayer Leverkusen. However, he hasn't played since February due to a calf injury and will be missing in Solna.

Defenders Vladimir Coufal, Ondrej Celustka and Ondrej Kudela are also absent and that could open the door to a Sweden side who may feel they should already be on the way to Qatar, having lost both of their last two qualifiers to finish behind Spain in Group B.

They too have selection issues, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, but this could be a chance for their youngsters to press their claims for the future.

Man Utd's Anthony Elanga is pushing for a debut and is 3/1 to score at anytime, while Tottenham's January arrival Dejan Kulusevski is 5/2 in the same market.

The worry might be that striker Alexander Isak has not scored for Real Sociedad since 5th January. However, with those behind him firing, playing a supporting role might be enough for Isak and the Blagult are 1/1 to win in 90 minutes and book their place to face Poland in Chorzow on Tuesday.

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