The 2020 European Championships qualifying schedule is nearing the midway point of group play, and while some teams are well on their way to being part of the 24-country pan-continental tournament, others are facing almost must-win scenarios to get their campaigns back on track during this international window, which starts Thursday.
Here are the matches that offer the most intrigue in the first set of contests through Saturday across the 11 groups:
Thursday, Sept. 5
Group J – Finland vs. Greece. Finland have never qualified for a major tournament in their 108-year football history but are on the upswing after winning promotion in the Nations League. Thursday’s match in Tampere against Greece starts arguably the biggest 72-hour stretch in the Huuhkajat’s history as they also play Group J leaders Italy on Sunday.
Finland, who are +110 favourites, boast in-form striker Teemu Pukki, who has gotten off to a blistering start with Norwich City in the Premier League with five goals in the promoted side’s first four matches. The Huuhkajat have a gilt-edged chance to strengthen their hold on second over Greece, and a win would allow them to play with house money versus the Azzurri, whom they already lost to on the road.
Group D – Ireland vs. Switzerland. After a fourth-place finish at the A level of the Nations League, Die Nati have group matches in hand – starting with Thursday’s contest in Dublin versus group leaders Ireland. The Swiss are strong road favourites at +110, but there could be turmoil in the camp as leading active goal-scorer and Liverpool winger Xherdan Shaqiri requested to be dropped from the squad to focus on getting more playing time with the six-times and reigning European club champions.
This match is the first real challenge for Mick McCarthy’s Boys in Green, who have posted slender wins over group minnows Gibraltar and Georgia while nicking a point off Denmark in Copenhagen. Ireland are without Wolves wing back Matt Doherty and Burnley winger Robbie Brady, though the latter’s club mate Jeff Hendrick is likely to slot into central midfield in a 4-5-1, defence-first formation.
Group F – Romania vs. Spain. La Roja are overwhelming favourites to maintain their 100 percent group record at -640 odds in Bucharest, but they will be there with heavy hearts following the shocking death of former manager Luis Enrique’s daughter. Enrique had taken leave from the team in June to take care of her, and this will be Robert Moreno’s first official match in charge after serving as interim manager for the previous three qualifying wins.
Sergio Ramos is tipped to make his 167th international appearance for Spain, which would tie him with keeper Iker Casillas for the most in the 2008 and 2012 champions’ history.
Romania (+650) are missing a key piece in suspended midfielder Alexandru Chipciu, which means getting and maintaining possession against La Roja could prove more arduous than the challenge it already is. The Tricolorii have lost just once in their last 14 matches – to fellow second-place Sweden – and are hoping history is on their side once more as they enter this match unbeaten in six all-time home matches (3-3-0) versus Spain.
Friday, Sept. 6
Group C – Germany vs. Netherlands. Die Mannschaft (-110) have taken the full nine points from their group matches and have a chance to put the screws to the Dutch in Hamburg by completing a qualifying double. Germany won 3-2 in Amsterdam in March and followed that up by scoring 10 without reply against Belarus and Estonia.
The Oranje (+260) appeared to have turned a corner by reaching the UEFA Nations A final, but there is still a sense of fragility to a side that missed out on the 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup. The centre-back tandem of Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk and Juventus newcomer Matthijs de Ligt will have to be at their best to give the Netherlands a vital three points to kick start their group campaign.
Group E – Slovakia vs. Croatia. Both sides have a match in hand on group leaders Hungary, with Slovakia (+270) currently second on goal difference. The 2018 World Cup runners-up have alternated wins and losses in their last six matches, including a surprising home loss in a friendly to Tunisia in June last time out.
Vatreni boss Zlatko Dalic surprisingly dropped Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic from the side, citing the stress that came with his playing status in the run-up to the close of the European transfer window. The Repre (+110), meanwhile, are coming off back-to-back five-goal outbursts in team history after putting both Jordan and Azerbaijan to the sword by 5-1 counts in their last two matches
Saturday, Sept. 7
All of Group H – Iceland vs. Moldova; Turkey vs. Andorra; France vs. Albania.
A scheduling quirk has created an opportunity for the haves of Group H – Iceland (-420), Turkey (-4,000) and World Cup champions France (-1,150) to separate themselves from the have-nots – Moldova (+900), Andorra (+8,500) and Albania (+3,500) with home matches Saturday.
All three home sides are on nine points, with France and Turkey well ahead of Iceland on goal difference. The Strakarnir Okkar have not lost a qualifier in Reykjavik since 2013, and Everton playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson is looking to help them continue a 100 percent rate at home in this qualifying cycle. Iceland will be without Burnley wide midfielder Johann Berg Gudmundsson due to a calf strain, with Malmo’s Arnor Ingvi Traustason the most likely replacement.
Turkey had their 100 percent record come to an end in Reykjavik last time out but have an excellent opportunity to regroup as they face both group minnows Andorra and Moldova this window. The Crescent Stars are hoping out-of-form Everton forward Cenk Tosun can regain his scoring touch to partner with veteran Burak Yilmaz, and talisman Emre Belozoglu is in line for his 100th national appearance the next time he takes the pitch.
Les Bleus have the sternest challenge on paper in facing Albania and will be without a slew of players who lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in Russia last year. Electric playmakers Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Kylian Mbappe (PSG) and N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) are all out through injury, as are Manchester City defenders Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy, and PSG back-liner Presnel Kimpembe.
Manager Didier Deschamps still boasts a staggeringly deep player pool to draw from, and his preferred back four of Lucas Digne, Raphael Verane, Samuel Umtiti and Benjamin Pavard are all on the roster. He gave a maiden call-up to Arsenal 20-year-old Matteo Guendouzi to fill the void in the midfield but surprisingly did not add teammate Alexander Lacazette, opting for Chelsea veteran centre-forward Olivier Giroud and Barcelona winger Antoine Greizmann to take care of the scoring.