Italy urgently need goals, Scotland require a point and the Netherlands must pull together in France for a crunch qualifiers in Ireland’s group.
Future is bright for perfect Portugal
Portugal have won their opening six qualifying matches, scoring 24 goals without conceding. Group J is not the toughest from a competitive point of view but Roberto Martínez’s side have been clinical in their performances. Belgium qualified for Euro 2020 under Martínez thanks to 10 wins in as many matches, and following that up with another perfect record would be a fine feat for the Spaniard, which would be made even better by a spotless defensive record when they finish this stage against Iceland next month. Furthermore, João Neves is in the squad for the first time, showing that Portugal’s future is bright, especially when it comes to Benfica academy graduates. The 19-year-old midfielder has impressed for his club this season, earning him plenty of interest across Europe.
The Hawks swoop into Denmark
Saturday night will be an exciting one in Group H given the top four are in action against each other. A single point separates those fighting for qualification, with table-toppers Slovenia, who have the most goals in the group, hosting Finland two hours and 45 minutes before Denmark’s match with Kazakhstan. The Hawks, as Kazakhstan are known, face a tough task if they want to secure their first qualification for a major tournament. After heading to Denmark, they face Finland with a trip to Slovenia to finish off the group stage after a guaranteed win at home to San Marino. Magomed Adiyev’s side need to cause a shock this week if they are to go through. They have shown they are a team on the up with home and away victories over Northern Ireland and defeating Denmark in Astana. Finishing third in a tough group would be a success for this team but with plenty of key players in their 30s, this will be the last chance for many Kazakhs to qualify.
Andorra begin life without Lima
This is the start of a new era for Andorra, the first time they have known life without Ildefons Lima at the heart of their defence since 1997. The defender, who made his international debut in his country’s second ever game, has hung up his boots at the ripe old age of 43. He played against Brazil, France, England and Belgium, battling for 20 years to earn a first competitive win. Even though Lima is gone, there is plenty of experience in Andorra’s ranks to replace him; the squad still contains two players with more than 100 caps, with a few more not far behind. Andorra have shown relative promise in recent times, securing draws against Belarus and Kosovo in this qualification cycle. They will be hoping to celebrate Lima’s retirement with a party on Thursday night by securing a rare win against Kosovo at home.
Serbia prepare to deploy rising star Ratkov out of the qualifiers
Whenever a teenage striker is signed up by the Red Bull football franchise it might be worth taking a look considering the footsteps he is following in. Not only did Petar Ratkov have plenty of club suitors before heading to Salzburg over the summer, he was the subject of interest from a number of countries. Born in Belgrade, the 6ft 4in striker rejected a call from Bulgaria last month and could have chosen to play for Croatia but instead has stuck with Serbia, the country of his birth and who he has represented throughout his career. Ratkov, who turned 20 in August, could make his senior debut in a vital clash away to Hungary on Saturday. The two teams are both on 10 points, although Hungary have played a game fewer. Whoever wins will be one step closer to reaching Germany next summer, where Ratkov could firmly announce himself.
Scotland aim to make their point in the qualifiers
Scotland, with five wins from five qualifying games, require just a draw in Spain to secure progress to a second successive Euros. Should that be achieved, Steve Clarke, who took over a national team for whom qualifiers had provided such pain since 1998, can lay claim to being one of his country’s finest managers. Not that Clarke, one of football’s great realists, will be thinking any further ahead than Seville, but any forward planning ought to involve the targeting of progress beyond the group stages in Germany, beyond which no Scotland team has never been. Thursday sees Scotland face Rodri, who in March sneered that Clarke’s tactics were “a bit rubbish” when Scotland beat Spain 2-0 at Hampden. The Manchester City midfielder’s words will doubtless form part of Clarke’s team talk.
Italy need goalsin the qualifiers as Wembley looms
As defending champions, and Qatar 2022 absentees, missing out on the Euros would be deeply embarrassing for Italy, now under the management of Luciano Spalletti. The aim of their qualifying double-header is to avoid allowing Ukraine back into the picture. Malta on Saturday should give Spalletti room to experiment before Wembley on Tuesday, where England might themselves secure progress. Under both Roberto Mancini, now managing Saudi Arabia, and Spalletti, goals have been in short supply for the Azzurri, March’s win in Malta achieved with a rather meagre 2-0 margin. Ciro Immobile remains absent after an April car crash and the most recent Serie A weekend took a further, heavy toll on the squad Spalletti had selected the previous week, though Federico Chiesa, who sat out Juventus’s match, remains in the squad. Destiny Udogie, a breakout star for Tottenham this season, is in line for a first competitive start.
Depleted Dutch face fearsome France in the qualifiers
The domestic strife in Dutch football, with Ajax falling from grace and a surge in hooliganism disrupting the schedule, is in danger of being mirrored on the international stage. Slip up against France on Friday, allied to Greece winning in Dublin (as is very possible) then Monday in Athens becomes a crunch fixture for Ronald Koeman’s team. His injury list is brutal: Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Memphis Depay, Cody Gakpo and Sven Botman are all missing, robbing Koeman of most of his players at the elite end of European football. Ajax’s fallen star is reflected by only three players from the club being selected in the squad – Steven Berghuis, Steven Bergwijn, Brian Brobbey, all forwards, the latter in line to make his debut. Greece were well beaten in September and the Dutch retain a game in hand. But France, despite injury problems that have led to Chelsea’s Malo Gusto and Axel Disasi being called up, remain an awesome prospect to face.
Sylvinho’s Albania line up ‘three finals’ in the qualifiers
Albania have only ever previously qualified for Euro 2016, and never reached a World Cup, but are frontrunners in a close-run Group E. A 2-0 statement win over Poland in September all but sunk Polish hopes, Robert Lewandowski’s current absence further deepening their plight. Sylvinho, another Barcelona alumni, whose previous coaching career extends to being sacked after mere months in charge of Lyon and Corinthians, is Albania’s miracle worker. The small national stadium in Tirana – capacity just 21,000 – is sold out for Thursday’s match against the Czech Republic. Two matches in November, away to Moldova and at home to the Faroe Islands, complete what the Brazilian coach calls “three finals ahead of us”. A further Group E wild card is Moldova, who retain a decent chance of qualification, though their poor Nations League performance means they must qualify directly rather than via the playoffs. On Sunday, they must repeat June’s win over Poland for that to remain likely.