Major powers close to Euro 2020 spots but France in fight
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-place 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.
Spain enjoy the biggest lead in European qualifying — by seven points in Group F after also winning six straight games — and might just need one victory in their matches at Norway and Sweden to advance.
Group A leaders England will qualify with a win at the Czech Republic on Friday.
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-place 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, the team they visit on Monday. A loss for Portugal in Kiev would leave third-place Serbia in with a chance of reeling in the titleholders.
There is much to like about the new-look England under Gareth Southgate, particularly the potency of a frontline containing three of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, and also the raft of dynamic full-back options available.
One area where Southgate has yet to strike the right balance is in midfield — the department where England was exposed in the loss to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals last year.
The current first-choice midfield appears to be Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley, but the emergence of playmakers Mason Mount and James Maddison — of Chelsea and Leicester, respectively — leaves Barkley, in particular, vulnerable for his place.
HOW QUALIFYING WORKS
The top two in each of the 10 groups qualify for the 24-team Euro 2020, which is being played in 12 countries with no automatic places for hosts.
The other four qualifiers will come through four tiers of play-offs in March. Line-ups for the four-team knockout brackets in each tier are shaped by Nations League standings from one year ago.
The Euro 2020 tournament draw is made November 30 in Bucharest, Romania. UEFA could have to modify the draw next April if host nations qualify via the play-offs.