Italy, Mbappe, Spain and Ronaldo in spotlight as Euro 2024 qualifying begins

Published March 23, 2023
CLAIREFONTAINE: (From L) French players Jules Kounde, Kylian Mbappe and Moussa Diaby take part in a training session for the upcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers.—AFP
CLAIREFONTAINE: (From L) French players Jules Kounde, Kylian Mbappe and Moussa Diaby take part in a training session for the upcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers.—AFP

PARIS: Three months on from Argentina’s dramatic World Cup final victory over France, international football returns this week as Euro 2024 qualifying gets underway with several of the biggest teams looking to rebound..

France came within a penalty shootout of winning back-to-back World Cup titles but Germany, Italy and Spain all went through humbling experiences either before or during last year’s tournament in Qatar.

Germany, as hosts, are exempt from the qualifying process but the rest of Europe’s heavyweights begin the process this week.

Germany’s decline since winning the World Cup in 2014 continued after being knocked out in the group stage last year — for the second straight World Cup.

Spain have not won a major tournament since Euro 2012. While they reached the semi-finals at Euro 2020, elimination in the round of 16 at the World Cup was a setback for a promising new generation of players.

Defending European champion Italy did­n’t even qualify for the tournament in Qatar.

Elsewhere, Belgium went into the tournament as the second-ranked FIFA team but couldn’t make it out of the group stage; Portugal’s young team reached the quarterfinals but was eliminated by Morocco in what was likely Cristiano Ronaldo’s last World Cup; and Euro 2020 finalists England endured their earliest elimination under coach Gareth Southgate after losing to France in the quarter-finals.

Italy were the highest-profile nation to miss out on the World Cup and now begin their defence of the European Championship trophy with a mouthwatering showdown against England in a repeat of the Euro 2020 final which the Azzurri won on penalties at Wembley.

Roberto Mancini remains in charge despite the failed World Cup qualifying campaign, but there are some new faces in his squad.

One man to look out for will be Mateo Retegui, a 23-year-old Argentina-born forward who was the top scorer in the Argentinian league with Tigre last year.

“Years ago they used to say that to play for the national team you needed to be born in Italy. But the world has changed and all national teams have players who are naturalised or come from other nations,” Mancini said.

Italy will be expected to advance from qualifying Group ‘C’ along with England given the top two teams in each section go through. However, Ukraine may cause those sides some problems — they play England away on Sunday.

France coach Didier Deschamps needed a new captain after long-serving skipper Hugo Lloris retired following the World Cup.

He has opted to give the armband to Kylian Mbappe, deciding that the superstar Paris St Germain forward is ready for the role at the age of 24.

“Kylian ticked all the boxes to have that extra responsibility,” said Deschamps of the player whose breathtaking hat-trick in the World Cup final could stop Lionel Messi from winning the one major trophy that had eluded the Argentina great.

But even in defeat in the World Cup final, Mbappe proved he is the next football great. The striker could make up for the disappointment of losing in Qatar by leading his team to the European title in Germany.

With centre-back Raphael Varane also standing down, there is a new look to France as they prepare to begin qualifying at home to the Netherlands on Friday before a trip to the Republic of Ireland.

Mike Maignan of AC Milan will be the new first-choice goalkeeper, while Nice midfielder Khephren Thuram received a first call-up — the son of Lilian Thuram joins his elder brother Marcus in the squad.

Spain responded to their disappointing World Cup showing by sacking coach Luis Enrique, with Luis De La Fuente named as his replacement.

The 61-year-old De La Fuente had previously coached Spain’s youth teams since 2013, most recently the Under-23 side.

De La Fuente has overseen sweeping changes to the squad, including the notable decision to recall Kepa Arrizabalaga, the Chelsea goalkeeper.

With Sergio Busquets retiring and his Barcelona colleague Jordi Alba not featuring, there are now no survivors from the team that won Euro 2012.

Spain are in qualifying Group ‘A’ where they kick off at home in Malaga against a Norway side missing the injured Erling Haaland and then face Scotland in Glasgow next Tuesday.

Those who thought Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia following the World Cup signalled the end of his international carer were surprised as the 38-year-old was named in new Portugal coach Roberto Martinez’s first squad.

“I do not look at the age,” said Martinez when asked about his decision to include the former Real Madrid and Manchester United man.

While Ronaldo is in the twilight of his career at the age of 38 and playing his club football in Saudi Arabia, Martinez has a host of stars to pick from, including Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Diogo Jota.

He didn’t win a major trophy with Belgium, but he could have the tools to lead Portugal to success, starting with matches against Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The 2016 European champions also play Iceland, Slovakia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in Group ‘J’.

Spain and Portugal are far from the only European nations going into qualifying with a new coach.

Ronald Koeman returned as coach of the Netherlands after Louis van Gaal departed following the World Cup.

After eight years in charge of Portugal, Fernando Santos is the new man in charge of Poland.

Italy-born German Domenico Tedesco has replaced Martinez as coach of Belgium.

Michael O’Neill has returned for a second spell as coach of Northern Ireland. He took them to the last 16 of Euro 2016.

Fixtures (1945 GMT unless stated):

Thursday:

Group ‘C’: Italy v England, North Macedonia v Malta.

Friday:

Group ‘H’: Kazakhstan v Slovenia (1500 GMT), Denmark v Finland, San Marino v Northern Ireland.

Group ‘J’: Portugal v Liechtenstein, Slovakia v Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegovina v Iceland.

Group ‘B’: France v Netherlands, Gibraltar v Greece.

Group ‘E’: Czech Republic v Poland, Moldova v Faroe Islands.

Group ‘F’: Sweden v Belgium, Austria v Azerbaijan.

Group ‘G’: Bulgaria v Montenegro (1700), Serbia v Lithuania.

Saturday:

Group ‘A’: Scotland v Cyprus (1400), Spain v Norway.

Group ‘D’: Armenia v Turkey (1700), Croatia v Wales.

Group ‘I’: Belarus v Switzerland (1700), Israel v Kosovo (1700), Andorra v Romania.

Sunday:

Group ‘C’: England v Ukraine (1600), Malta v Italy.

Group ‘H’: Kazakhstan v Denmark (1300), Slovenia v San Marino (1600), Northern Ireland v Finland.

Group ‘J’: Liechtenstein v Iceland (1600), Slovakia v Bosnia and Herzegovina, Luxembourg v Portugal.

Monday:

Group ‘B’: Netherlands v Gibraltar, Republic of Ireland v France.

Group ‘E’: Poland v Albania, Moldova v Czech Republic.

Group ‘F’: Sweden v Azerbaijan, Austria v Estonia.

Group ‘G’: Hungary v Bulgaria, Montenegro v Serbia.

Tuesday:

Group ‘A’: Georgia v Norway (1600), Scotland v Spain.

Group ‘D’: Turkey v Croatia, Wales v Latvia.

Group ‘I’: Switzerland v Israel, Romania v Belarus, Kosovo v Andorra.

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2023

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