Deportes

Only nine places remain for next summer's World Cup

Only nine places remain for next summer's World Cup

Panama, meanwhile, showed it is perfectly possible for small nations to qualify without expanding the finals to 48 teams, which is planned for the 2026 edition, as they joined Iceland in reaching the tournament for the first time.

But Messi's three goals against Ecuador on Tuesday evening ensured that that Argentina will be part of the next World Cup.

Although the nation has already secured a place in at least a playoff, a win against Switzerland would allow them to secure a spot in Russia.

Portugal beat Switzerland 2-0 in Lisbon thanks to a Johan Djourou own goal and an Andre Silva strike.

The European champion only once lost in this qualification.

Panama's first-ever qualification for the finals prompted President Juan Carlos Varela to declare a national holiday, describing it on Twitter as an "historic day for the country".

Deschamps brought on Paris Saint-Germain starlet Kylian Mbappe in the second half to inject pace and fresh ideas, but with the seconds ticking down to the final whistle, it was Saroka again who slid a shot just wide from close range.

Switzerland now go into the play-offs along with Greece, who ended Slovakia's slim hopes of being in next Tuesday's draw with a comfortable 4-0 win over Gibraltar.

"We knew we had to win and fortunately with the support of all the Portuguese we got the victory and the qualification for the World Cup", the Manchester City man told the Portuguese football Federation's website. They were also indebted to Venezuela who stopped Paraguay from taking the playoff spot with a shock 1-0 win in Asuncion.

Portugal has won their last eight games in the group stages and will look to its leader Cristiano Ronaldo to propel them to Russia. The Liverpool winger will have the pressure of a nation on his shoulders next summer.

That is no longer unknown territory for Fernando Santos' side, however, following their 1-0 victory over France to become European champions last year.

In all, the 26-year-old scored four and assisted four over his 10 appearances for Les Bleus. Ronaldo scored 15 goals in the campaign.

Of the remaining nine places available in Russia - four will be from Europe, three will be from Africa and the other two will be the winners of the play-offs between Peru and New Zealand, and Honduras and Australia.

But the French defense was caught napping, allowing Belarus to reduce the gap when the lively Anton Saroka swept past Hugo Lloris a minute before half-time.

With the Spain captain turning 34 before the start of the World Cup finals, Russia threatens to be Andres Iniesta's last chance of adding to his 2010 winners' medal. We may not be able to call on Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, a tantalising prospect as recently as Tuesday night, but we can call on Arsenal's sometime footballer and full-time bench-smirker Alexis Sanchez after his Arsenal team-mate David Ospina had a, ahem, hand in condemning Chile to sixth spot in CONMEBOL's ever-entertaining 10-team quadrennial dust-up.