What to look out for in Euro 2024 qualifying

Three months removed from Argentina's dramatic World Cup final victory over France, international soccer returns as Euro 2024 qualifying gets underway. Germany, as host, is exempt from the qualifying process, but the rest of Europe's heavyweights begin the process this week.

- Italy back -

Italy was the highest-profile nation to miss out on the World Cup in Qatar. It now begins its defense 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 Stadium. Roberto Mancini remains in charge despite the failed World Cup qualifying campaign, but there are some new players in his squad such as 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 naturalized or come from other nations," Mancini said.

Italy is expected to advance from qualifying Group C along with England given the top two teams in each group go through. However, Ukraine, which plays at England on Sunday, may cause these two European soccer powers some problems.

- Mbappe takes the armband -

France coach Didier Deschamps needed a new captain after long-serving skipper and starting goalkeeper Hugo Lloris retired following the World Cup. He opted to give the armband to Kylian Mbappe, deciding that the superstar Paris Saint-Germain forward is ready for the role at the age of 24.

"Kylian ticked all the boxes to have that extra responsibility," Deschamps said of the player who scored the breathtaking hat-trick in the World Cup final.

With center-back Raphael Varane also retiring from international duty, there is a new look to France as Les Blues prepare to begin qualifying at home against the Netherlands on Friday before a trip to the Republic of Ireland. AC Milan's Mike Maignan will be the new first-choice goalkeeper, while Nice midfielder Khephren Thuram received a first call-up, the son of former player Lilian Thuram joining his older brother Marcus in the squad.

- New era for Spain -

Spain responded to its disappointing World Cup showing by sacking manager Luis Enrique and naming Luis De La Fuente as his replacement. 

The 61-year-old De La Fuente had managed Spain's youth teams since 2013, most recently the Under-23 team. He oversaw sweeping changes to the squad, including the notable decision to recall Chealsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.

With Sergio Busquets retired and his Barcelona teammate Jordi Alba not called up, no survivor remains from the team that won Euro 2012. Spain, in qualifying Group A, kicks off in Malaga against a Norway team without the injured Erling Haaland and then faces Scotland in Glasgow.

- Ronaldo still there for Portugal -

Those who thought Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Saudi Arabia following the World Cup signaled the end of his international carer were surprised as new Portugal manager Roberto Martinez included the 38-year-old in his first squad.

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

Ronaldo holds the world record for men's international goals with 118. He also holds the European men's record of 196 caps, a tally that equals the world landmark with Kuwait's Bader Al-Mutawa

Ronaldo expects to claim that record outright, and add to his goal tally, when Portugal face Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The 2016 European champion also plays Iceland, Slovakia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in Group J.

- New faces on the touchline -

Spain and Portugal are not the only European countries going into qualifying with a new boss. Ronald Koeman returned to manage the Netherlands after Louis van Gaal departed following the World Cup. After eight years in charge of Portugal, Fernando Santos is now Poland's manager. Italy-born German Domenico Tedesco replaced Martinez as Belgium's manager and Michael O'Neill has returned for a second spell as manager of Northern Ireland, the nation he led to the Euro 2016 round of 16.


© Agence France-Presse

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