Thursday’s Euro 2024 qualifiers:
Group C: Italy vs England & North Macedonia vs Malta.
Group H: Denmark vs Finland, San Marino vs Northern Ireland & Kazakhstan vs Slovenia.
Group J: Portugal vs Liechtenstein, Bosnia & Herzegovina vs Iceland & Slovakia vs Luxembourg.
Italy vs England
Euro 2024 qualifying kicks off with a repeat of the most-recent European Championships Final.
Just 620 days ago, Italy beat England on penalties at Wembley, thereby lifting this trophy for the first time in 53 years.
Now, both begin their latest qualifying campaign hoping that, in 481 days time, they’ll be crowned champions of Europe in Berlin.
Since that success at Wembley, Gli Azzurri have missed out on a second successive World Cup, ignominiously ousted by North Macedonia in the play-offs almost exactly a year ago.
Despite that, they’ve shown faith in Roberto Mancini, who’s already proved his worth, guiding Italy to this summer’s Nations League Finals.
To get there, they topped a group that also featured England, drawing 0-0 when the two met at Molineux, before a 1-0 win at San Siro in September.
This extends Italy’s unbeaten competitive streak against England to nine matches, dating back 46 years, very much hoping to make that ten in Naples.
England meantime were last seen in Qatar being beaten by France in the World Cup quarter-finals.
Since then, the headline news is that Gareth Southgate is staying on as manager, seeking to end 58 years of hurt next summer.
The Three Lions haven’t missed a tournament since 2008, losing just two of 66 qualifiers since that defeat to Croatia in the pouring rain under Steve McClaren.
This though will be a key double-header for England, who welcome Ukraine to Wembley on Sunday.
Will either side start with a win at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona?
North Macedonia vs Malta
In a very difficult group, it’s vitally important that the home side making a winning start in Skopje.
North Macedonia have very much put themselves on the map in recent years, not least by making their major tournament debut at Euro 2020.
Then, during World Cup qualifying, the Lynxes beat both Germany and Italy away from home, before falling to Portugal in last March’s play-off final.
After that though, Blagoja Milevski’s men won just two of six Nations League C games, both victories coming against Gibraltar.
Thus, North Macedonia cannot be involved in next March’s play-offs, meaning they must secure a top two finish in this group to be at the next Euros.
Well, given that Italy, England and Ukraine complete Group C, that seems very unlikely.
With three heavyweights to come, Malta have been cast as the section’s minnows and could prove to be classic whipping boys.
The Falcons have only ever won seven of 218 qualification fixtures, never winning more than once in the same cycle.
In 2022, they remained rooted in the Nations League’s bottom-tier, pipped to promotion by Estonia.
Malta haven’t ended a campaign with zero points since Euro 2000 qualifying but, given the strength of Group C, this could be about to change.
The home fans inside Toše Proeski National Arena will be expecting to see a comfortable North Macedonia win.
Denmark vs Finland
Denmark have been so impressive in recent years, making them favourites to cruise through Group H.
De Rød-Hvide have won 19 of their last 27 qualification fixtures, losing just one, notably reaching the Euro 2020 semi-finals during this period.
Back in November, Kasper Hjulmand’s side were very disappointing at the World Cup, crashing out in the group stages without a win to their name.
Nevertheless, the DBU have stuck with Hjulmand, confident he can guide them through this group.
Visitors Finland will be hoping to join their Nordic neighbours in Germany next summer, after making their major tournament debut at the most-recent Euros.
Since the start of 2021, the Eagle-owls have won just six of 17 competitive fixtures, narrowly avoiding relegation to Nations League C back in September.
One of those wins did come in Copenhagen, with Markku Kanerva’s side beating the Danes at Euro 2020, a result very much overshadowed by Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest mid-game.
This time, Denmark are likely to claim victory at Parken.
San Marino vs Northern Ireland
Michael O’Neill is back in charge of Northern Ireland, so will his second spell as manager begin with a win Serravalle?
In 2016, O’Neil led Northern Ireland to their first major tournament for 30 years, reaching the knockout phase at their European Championships to date.
The Green and White Army then featured in the play-offs in both 2018 and 2020 qualifying, ousted by Switzerland and Slovakia respectively.
After that, things really fell off a cliff for O’Neil’s successor Ian Baraclough.
His team won just two World Cup qualifiers, both against Lithuania, before claiming just a solitary win in Nations League C, thereby avoiding the relegation play-outs on goal difference alone.
To summarise, Northern Ireland are far from the force of a few years ago, with the IFA hoping that O’Neil’s return can change that.
Another reason for optimism is the fact that Group H is wide-open.
Ahead of Finland visiting Windsor Park on Sunday night, will the Green and White Army put three points on the board here?
San Marino, for their part, are still seeking a first-ever competitive international win.
To date, la Serenissima have played 166 competitive fixtures, drawing five and losing the other 161, conceding a whopping 724 goals, that’s an average of 4.4 per 90 minutes.
Last year, Fabrizio Costantini’s side lost all four Nations League D matches without scoring, beaten home and away by both Estonia and Malta.
Just in terms of qualifiers, San Marino have lost 94 of their last 95 outings, the sole exception a goalless draw with Estonia way back in November 2014.
Northern Ireland have won both previous visits to Stadio Olimpico di Serravalle 3-0, with a similar scoreline expected here.
Kazakhstan vs Slovenia
After achieving historic success in 2022, will Kazakhstan continue their excellent form in this campaign?
12 months ago, the Hawks were very nearly relegated to the Nations League’s bottom-tier, only managing to beat Moldova in a penalty shootout in the relegation play-outs.
This signalled the start of a remarkable turnaround which culminated in Kazakhstan gaining promotion to League B, thanks to wins over Azerbaijan, Slovakia and Belarus.
So, when the next edition of the Nations League rolls round, Magomed Adiyev’s men could be in the same group as England, which is a real achievement for this peripheral country.
Now their aim is to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since gaining UEFA membership in 2002.
With a play-off place already secured, Kazakhstan come into this campaign with no fear and, if they are going to upset the odds, home form will be key.
Slovenia meanwhile make the long 2,600 mile journey east to Nur-Sultan believing that this could be the start of a successful year.
As an independent nation, they have featured at three major tournaments, the most-recent of which is South Africa 2010.
However, Matjaž Kek’s team have been impressive in recent years, losing just six of their last 22 competitive fixtures.
With no obvious candidate to take second place, both are hopeful it could be they making the trip to Germany next June.
This clash at Astana Arena will tell us a lot about both sides, so who will win the first-ever meeting between these two nations?
Portugal vs Liechtenstein
The Roberto Martínez era begins for Portugal.
Following A Seleção’s World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Morocco, Fernando Santos’ eight year tenure as Head Coach came to an end.
Santos wasn’t the most-popular of managers but, having guided Portugal to the first two major trophies of their history, winning the Euros and the Nations League, Martínez has a lot to live up to.
Portugal have qualified for all 12 major tournaments this century and will face little difficulty in maintaining that record here.
In fact, it wouldn’t be that surprising if they ended a campaign with maximum points for the first time ever.
Here, they face the second-worst team in Europe, based on Nations League ranking, so expect plenty of goals in Lisbon.
Liechtenstein come into this campaign following ten successive competitive defeats, a streak that’s only likely to be extended.
The Blue-Reds lost all eight matches in 2022, ending up rock bottom of their Nations League D group, scoring just one goal and conceding 11 against fellow-minnows Latvia, Moldova and Andorra.
This form cost Martin Stocklasa his job as manager, with Rene Pauritsch currently in interim charge.
In terms of qualifiers, since their last win, coming in 2014, Liechtenstein have lost 32 of 36 matches, mustering just four draws.
Portugal have scored 35 goals in seven previous meetings, with that figure set to significantly increase at Estádio José Alvalade.
Bosnia & Herzegovina vs Iceland
Will Bosnia & Herzegovina be making their European Championships debut in June 2024?
Since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in the mid-90s, Bosnia’s sole appearance at a major tournament came at the 2014 World Cup.
In terms of Euros, the Dragons have fallen in the play-offs in each of the last three cycles, beaten by Portugal, Republic of Ireland and most-recently Northern Ireland.
While their performance in the Nations League means a play-off place is secured, Faruk Hadžibegić's team will be desperate to qualify automatically.
Before a ball is kicked, Bosnia are the favourites to finish second in Group J, but could Iceland be their biggest challengers?
They made their tournament debut at Euro 2016, before also featuring at the World Cup in Russia two summers later.
However, Iceland are not the force of yesteryear, winning just two of their last 19 competitive games, both coming against minnows Liechtenstein.
The KSÍ have shown faith in Head Coach Arnar Viðarsson, but an upturn in results is desperately needed.
This’ll be a first-ever meeting of these two nations, with Bosnia seeking to make home advantage count at Stadion Bilino polje.
Slovakia vs Luxembourg
2022 was truly miserable for Slovakia, so they’ll be desperate to start the new year with a home win.
Last year, the Falcons finished third in their Nations League C group, ignominiously beaten at home by both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
During that six-game campaign, they went through three managers, Štefan Tarkovič and then Samuel Slovák were both sacked, with current boss Francesco Calzona taking over in August.
Including friendlies, the Italian is yet to win any of his four matches at the helm, meaning he’s already under pressure to secure positive results this month.
Slovakia have qualified for the last two European Championships, but will need to rapidly improve if they’re to be in Germany next summer.
As for Luxembourg, they hold the unwanted world-record for most qualification campaigns entered without ever featuring at a major tournament.
This is the start of the Red Lions’ 37th attempt to reach a finals and, despite not yet being successful, they are an improving force.
Luc Holtz’s side yielded nine points in World Cup qualifying which, in terms of points-per-game, is their most productive cycle so far.
They then lost just one of six Nations League C matches last year, pipped to promotion by Türkiye by just two points.
So, while Luxembourg are a long shot to take second spot, they will cause most teams in Group J a few problems.
Can the away side spring a surprise at Štadión Antona Malatinského?
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