LONDON: Most of the continent’s major football powers are in cruise control as they close in on qualification for next year’s European Championship.
Some are likely to secure their place in the finals this week, with two or three group games to spare.
Belgium, the world’s top-ranked nation, will become the first team to qualify if they beat last-placed San Marino in Group ‘I’ on Thursday. With the top two qualifying from each group, there’s a chance Russia, who are eight points clear in second place, could also advance by beating Scotland on the same night.
Italy hold a six-point lead in Group ‘J’ after winning all six of their matches, and are guaranteed to qualify with victories over Greece and Liechtenstein over the next week.
With two teams qualifying from each of the 10 groups, England need just a win at the Czech Republic to ensure qualification from the five-team Group ‘A’ after a perfect run of four victories from four that has put Gareth Southgate’s side four points clear of third-placed Kosovo, who have played a game more.
Also in contention to qualify on matchday seven are Spain, who have rattled off six straight wins in a tough Group ‘F’ despite the turmoil that followed the death of former coach Luis Enrique’s daughter.
Robert Moreno has taken over and his group leaders are eight points ahead of Romania in third. Spain need a win at Norway and the Faroe Islands to nick a result over the Romanians to book their place.
Two teams who are still in a fight to qualify are Portugal and France — the finalists in Euro 2016.
France, the world champions, are second in Group ‘H’ on goal difference behind Turkey but would be joined on points by third-placed Iceland with a loss in Reykjavik on Friday. France then host Turkey on Monday.
Portugal, the defending European champions, are in second place in Group ‘B’ and five points behind Ukraine, who they visit on Monday. A loss for Portugal in Kiev would leave third-place Serbia in with a chance of reeling in the titleholders.
Belgium and Russia both want a draw between Kazakhstan and Cyprus early on Thursday before they search for wins over San Marino and Scotland that would seal their qualification.
Roberto Mancini has continued his rebuilding of Italy while collecting six wins from six. His youthful Azzurri have a chance of booking their ticket against Greece on Saturday.
They need to beat the Greeks at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and hope that third-placed Armenia fail to beat rock-bottom Liechtenstein, who have conceded 19 goals so far.
Regardless, Italy are almost guaranteed a place in the Euros as they are nine points ahead of Armenia with four matches remaining. If they fail this time, they will have a second chance later in this international break, when they visit Liechtenstein on October 15 on matchday eight.
Former Inter Milan and Manchester City boss Mancini has taken the broom to the side that failed to qualify for the World Cup and thrown his trust behind young talent like Inter Milan midfielder Nicolo Barella, highly-rated Roma attacker Nicolo Zaniolo and AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Southgate meanwhile has built on taking England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, with his side crashing home 19 goals in a dominant qualification campaign.
The England manager has been helped by the blossoming, at 24, of Raheem Sterling who after scoring four goals in his first 47 England appearances has scored six in his last six.
Southgate has also capitalised on the emergence of young players such as West Ham’s Declan Rice, 20, and 19-year-old Jadon Sancho.
Young Chelsea trio Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham are the latest players to be rewarded by Southgate for their impressive club displays, with Mount and the Premier League’s joint-leading scorer Abraham among the revelations of the early-season fixtures.
The Netherlands, another team packed with young talent, will try to make their game in hand count in Group ‘C’ on Thursday when they host second-placed Northern Ireland looking to join their opponents and leaders Germany on 12 points.
Ronald Koeman’s side, which includes Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt and Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong and their former Ajax team-mate Donny van de Beek, have bounced back in style from failing to qualify for the last World Cup and Euros and would go top of the group with a victory in Rotterdam.
France coach Didier Deschamps will have to change his goalkeeper after Hugo Lloris was ruled out until next year because of a broken left elbow. Steve Mandanda looks to be an able deputy.
The 34-year-old Mandanda was recalled to the squad after some excellent performances for Olympique de Marseille since the start of this season. Having recovered from a torn muscle, he has produced several decisive and spectacular saves to compensate for his team’s defensive shortcomings.
Mandanda was initially recalled to be second choice behind Lloris but is now in line to win his 29th cap and first since last year’s World Cup, when he kept a clean sheet against Denmark.
Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2019