March FIFA window winners, losers: Brazil's streak, Messi's ban, Ronaldo's bust
- Lionel Messi was banned, Cristiano Ronaldo got a busted bust and Brazil punched its ticket to Russia in an eventful week on the international circuit.
Another international fixture window has come and gone, with World Cup qualifiers and friendlies around the world giving us plenty to feed off while the club game (largely) took a break.
Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar earned a wide range of headlines, while rising stars Kylian Mbappe, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Christian Pulisic made their own. Some powers inched closer to the 2018 World Cup, while others moved surprisingly farther away and a number of clubs cringed as their prized possessions fell victim to the injury bug.
Here are five winners and losers from around the globe after the last week of international action:
The Seleção punched their ticket to Russia with their seventh and eighth qualifying victories in a row. To think how far they've come since falling flat at Copa America last summer. With an Olympic gold medal and World Cup berth in tow, Brazil is trending in the right way and it looks as if Neymar & Co. have a samba back in their step while getting closer to the days of jogo bonito.
Sure, El Tri benefited from a shaky, goal-disallowing offside call in Trinidad, but they coasted to another six points and are well on their way to Russia in a drama-free manner. Barring an unthinkable collapse, the Mexicans won't need Graham Zusi or anyone on the U.S. to bail them out on the final day of qualifying. Between Chicharito tying Jared Borgetti's national goal record and then winning a bet that led to the team shaving manager Juan Carlos Osorio's head, there are good feelings emanating at Azteca.
The U.S. 18-year-old was stellar against Honduras and came through with the decisive play for the U.S. in a typical CONCACAF slugfest draw in Panama. There's no doubt he belongs on this stage, and all of the hype is proving to be justified. That Pulisic could help rejuvenate Clint Dempsey's U.S. career is no small detail, either.
Without video assistant referees, perhaps France beats or draws Spain in their friendly. Instead, Spain exited Paris, rightfully, with a 2-0 victory. The replay process was brief and accurate, no team was hard-done by and it makes you wonder what past controversial results could have gone another way if the technology had been in place.
Carlos Queiroz's side is within reach of the World Cup after a pair of 1-0 victories over Qatar and China. Iran is nine points clear of third place in its qualifying group (the top two teams automatically go through; third place goes to a playoff) and can wrap up Asia's first berth in Russia with a win at home against Uzbekistan on June 11.
All it took was one profanity-laced tirade (one that wasn't even mentioned on the referee's post-match report!) to keep Argentina's maestro from four World Cup qualifying games. Considering the circumstances, a four-game ban seems incredibly harsh, and Argentina will have to find a way to do something it's terrible at: win without Messi. That quest got off to a rough start, with a 2-0 loss at altitude in Bolivia, and now La Albiceleste are left fighting for their World Cup lives. Perhaps an appeal chops Messi's suspension down, but it's long been time for Argentina to overcome its Leo-dependence problem.
The Dutch have finished in the top three in each of the last two World Cups, but it's looking increasingly more possible that they'll follow their Euro 2016 performance–that is, not qualify for the competition at all. A loss to Bulgaria has threatened the Netherlands' 2018 World Cup hopes, with the side in fourth place in its qualifying group–albeit three points out of second place and a potential playoff-round berth. There's little reason for optimism now, though. Danny Blind was shown the door as manager, and caretaker Fred Grim oversaw a 2-1 loss to Italy. The Oranje are a long way from contending on the world stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo's "tribute" bust
O.K., so Ronaldo scored three goals, helped Portugal to three World Cup qualifying points, had an airport named after him and got to be welcomed in his home town. That'd usually make for one great week. But all we're talking about is that statue.
The international break was not kind to some of MLS's top names. The LA Galaxy's Sebastian Lletget (foot) will miss 4-6 months, Atlanta United's Josef Martinez (quad) will be out 4-6 weeks and the Houston Dynamo's Romell Quioto (shoulder) will miss 2-4 weeks. That's a hat trick of misfortune for the league and three of its bright stars and doesn't include Ignacio Piatti (not on international duty), who also reportedly picked up a hip injury that will keep him out for "several weeks."
The injury bug hit Everton and Liverpool, with Toffees Seamus Coleman, Ramiro Funes Mori and James McCarthy and Liverpool's Adam Lallana all getting hurt. Lallana's absence, in particular, is a big blow for the Reds, as he'll miss the next month for a team fighting for a Champions League place. Coleman's broken leg was horrible to watch (don't seek video), and he's done for the foreseeable future.
Oddly enough, the two sides battle in a Merseyside derby this Saturday at Anfield, but they'll do so shorthanded.