The final round of qualifying games for the 2024 European Championship continued on Friday.
Here are the five biggest takeaways.
Italy gets a much-needed win
Already assured of at least a spot in March’s playoffs, the Azzurri needed four points from its final two Group C games to automatically qualify for next summer’s tournament in Germany. With Italy’s final group match set for Monday against Ukraine, it really needed all three Friday in Rome over North Macedonia — the same opponent that denied the four-time World Cup champs a trip to soccer’s marquee event last year in Qatar — to avoid a must-win situation early next week.
Things got a little hairy when the Macedonians pulled within one with 15 minutes to go, but Luciano Spalletti’s team rolled to an eventual 5-2 victory. They even survived another penalty miss at Stadio Olimpico from Jorginho, whose failed spot kick there against Switzerland two years ago contributed to that 2022 World Cup miss.
Now, a draw on Monday in Germany — where Ukraine has staged its most recent games with its national stadium in Kyiv unavailable because of Russia’s ongoing war with its neighbor — will be enough to ensure the defending European champ’s participation in 2024.
Poland blows it at home, settles for playoff berth
The Robert Lewandowski-led Poles were up against it even before Friday’s encounter with Czechia. Sitting third in Group E when the day began, Poland had to beat the Czechs, then hope Moldova could steal a point against the same foe Monday in those teams’ final match of group play to seal an auto berth.
Barcelona striker Lewandowski has had a rough season in Spain, but Lewandowski is still more than capable of winning a game on his own. And hope was still alive for his side when Jakub Piotrowski put the hosts ahead in Warsaw. But a second-half equalizer by Czech defender Tomáš Souček doomed Poland, which now must wait until March to try to qualify via the playoffs.
Albania punches its Euros ticket for just the second time
Drawn into Group E with Poland and Czechia, few would’ve predicted that little Albania would automatically qualify for Euro 2024, let alone do it first.
That’s precisely what happened Friday, with Albania advancing to the continental championship for only the second time thanks to a 1-1 draw at Moldova. The hosts equalized with just three minutes remaining, but forward Sokol Cikalleshi’s first half penalty kick was enough for the Eagles — who are coached by former Arsenal, Barcelona and Brazilian national team defender Sylvinho — to clinch following multiple goal wins over the far more fancied Poles and Czechs in September and October.
After going out in the group stage in 2016, Albania will look to survive the first round next summer. Following its hugely impressive qualifying campaign, why not?
Denmark qualifies, too
Tied with Slovenia atop Group H and already guaranteed at least a backdoor route via the playoffs, Denmark knew that snaring all three points against the Slovenians in Copenhagen on Friday would be enough to get straight in. That was far from assured with the match knotted 1-1 in the second half, though. Even after Thomas Delaney nudged the Danes ahead in the 54th minute, there was still plenty of time for the Slovenians to answer.
Denmark — the 1992 champions and the bronze medalist last time out — made the slim lead stand up. And while getting all the way to the semis again next year is against the odds, fans across the continent know by now that the Danes have a habit of punching well above their weight.
England (eventually) dispatches Malta
Even if this match was a mere formality for the already-qualified Three Lions, England was still expected to make quick work of little Malta, which came into the match at Wembley Stadium in London having lost all seven of its games with a -16 goal differential.
It didn’t turn out that way at all, even if the hosts ended up with a 2-0 win. Gareth Southgate’s squad took an early lead through an own goal, and didn’t score one of their own until well into the second half. Harry Kane (of course) doubled the lead soon after:
England appeared to have a third before Declan Rice’s tally was overturned by VAR, but it wasn’t an overly convincing showing from the team that lost the last Euro final on penalties. No matter. England remains one of the title favorites next summer, and Southgate and his players would love nothing more than to hoist the trophy on the home soil of perhaps its biggest international rival.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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