Italy faces key showdown with Ukraine in Euro 2024 qualifying
GENEVA (AP) — The final rounds of European Championship qualifiers sees defending champion Italy needing a strong finish to clinch a spot at the tournament, while Albania and Slovenia can secure surprising group victories.
Romania is another unlikely team controlling its own Euro 2024 destiny, although Israel still has an outside chance to secure direct advancement from that group.
Slovenia tops Group H ahead of Denmark, but could still be overtaken by an even lower-ranked team — Kazakhstan.
Twelve teams will secure advancement in the next week to the tournament hosted by Germany. Eight teams already qualified last month: France, England, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Austria, Scotland and Turkey.
The Netherlands, Hungary and Serbia are best placed to confirm their qualification.
Three more teams will advance from a 12-team playoffs in March.
Among those in danger of not qualifying directly are Croatia, a finalist and semifinalist at the past two World Cups, and Italy, which failed to reach either of those tournaments.
Italy faces a high-stakes game against Ukraine on Monday, likely for second place behind England in Group C.
Ukraine will host Italy in Germany — at the stadium of Bundesliga leader Bayer Leverkusen — because it cannot play international games at home for security reasons during the military invasion by Russia. Russia was banned from Euro 2024 qualifying.
Italy is three points behind Ukraine but with a game in hand, and hosts North Macedonia on Friday – a fixture that could revive bad memories for the Italians. Italy’s second straight failure to reach the World Cup came in a home loss to North Macedonia in a playoff semifinal in March 2022.
Albania has ridden its strong home form — three wins and no goals conceded — to currently top a group that includes the Czech Republic and Poland.
Coached by former Brazil, Arsenal and Barcelona left-back Sylvinho, Albania only needs a draw Friday at Moldova to advance. Albania finishes Monday at home to the Faeroe Islands.
Poland, which fired veteran Portugal coach Fernando Santos after just a few months, needs a win at home against the Czechs on Friday to maintain any chance of advancing directly, but captain Robert Lewandowski’s team seems headed to the playoffs.
Slovenia has not qualified for a Euro since the 2000 edition, but leads Euro 2020 semifinalist Denmark on goal difference before they meet in Copenhagen on Friday. Even with a loss, Slovenia will need just a point to advance when hosting Kazakhstan on Monday.
Either Wales or Croatia will miss out on qualifying from Group D, where Turkey has already secured one of the top two spots.
Wales hosts Turkey next Tuesday potentially needing a win to advance and send Croatia to the playoffs. Wales holds the head-to-head tiebreaker after beating Croatia 2-1 last month.
Slovakia will join Portugal advancing from Group J by drawing at home to Iceland on Thursday. Third-place Luxembourg should be in the playoffs because of its Nations League results.
Israel has never qualified for the Euros since becoming a full UEFA member in 1994. It was already in a tight, three-way race with Romania and Switzerland in Group I before the war with Hamas led to its two scheduled games in October being postponed.
A new program of four games in 10 days started Sunday with a 1-0 loss at Kosovo, making third-place Israel’s “home” game Wednesday against Switzerland key.
Israel will play that game in a small Hungarian village closely tied to the country's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Group leader Romania visits Saturday.
The final round is Tuesday, when Romania hosts Switzerland and Israel is at Andorra.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer