Egypt captain Salah leads African stars into World Cup qualifying

Egypt captain Salah leads African stars into World Cup qualifying

PARIS: Reigning champions Italy are preparing for a decisive qualifier with Ukraine for a place at Euro 2024, while former winners the Netherlands and 2016 semifinalists Wales are also aiming to book their tickets to the finals in Germany.

The last two rounds of qualifying matches take place over the next week, and a total of 12 countries will secure their spots in next month’s draw in Hamburg for the tournament to go with nine who are already guaranteed to be there.

Continental heavyweights Spain, France, England, Belgium and Portugal have already qualified along with hosts Germany, Turkiye, Scotland and Austria for the 24-nation finals which will run June 14 to July 14 next year.

Italy, who beat England on penalties at Wembley in the final of the last European Championship in 2021 to claim the title for the second time, still have work to do to avoid missing another major tournament.

Having failed to qualify for either of the last two World Cups, there is a danger the Azzurri will not be in Germany to defend their title after a qualifying campaign during which coach Roberto Mancini quit either side of defeats home and away to England.

Yet the equation is simple for the team now coached by Luciano Spalletti — whatever happens when they face North Macedonia in Rome on Friday, win against Ukraine in Germany next Monday and they will qualify.

A draw against Ukraine will suffice if they beat North Macedonia first. Lose their last game, on the other hand, and Ukraine will progress to the finals instead, while Italy will drop into the play-offs next March which will determine the final three qualifiers.

That is a scenario they will desperately want to avoid, having failed to qualify for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups after losing playoff ties to Sweden and North Macedonia respectively.

“We have to handle the fear. It will be there by our side as we go,” indicated Spalletti this week when asked about the high stakes facing his team in the Group C finale.

Meanwhile, there appears little prospect of the Netherlands failing in their bid to join France in qualifying from Group B.

A win at home to the Republic of Ireland in Amsterdam on Saturday will do the job for Ronald Koeman’s side. And if they slip up, they will have another chance when they face Gibraltar on Tuesday.

Assuming they do wrap up qualification, that will leave Euro 2004 winners Greece to settle for a place in the playoffs, as determined by their performances in the last UEFA Nations League.

Wales have recovered from a wobble as they adapt to life without Gareth Bale and are now hopeful of securing a spot at a third consecutive Euro finals.

Rob Page’s side appeared up against it in Group D following defeats by Armenia and Turkiye in June, but a 2-1 win over Croatia in Cardiff last month, when Harry Wilson scored twice, has left them with qualification in their own hands.

A win in Armenia on Saturday, and another at home to already-qualified Turkiye three days later, will take them through.

“The mindset we’ve got is we can get a result against anyone. We’ve shown that,” said Wales captain Ben Davies.

Croatia are ready to take advantage of any slip-up by the Welsh, but otherwise the 2018 World Cup runners-up, and 2022 semifinalists, will have to try again in the playoffs.

Other nations poised to qualify include Denmark, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and Slovakia, while Albania are set to go to a second Euro in three editions.

They need just a draw away to minnows Moldova on Friday in order to qualify from Group E, in which Robert Lewandowski’s Poland look likely to miss out.

They, like Erling Haaland’s Norway, could at least still get into the playoffs, as they aim to avoid the fate of Sweden, the biggest nation to already be eliminated.

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