London: Few big teams need to sweat the 2020 European Championship qualifiers, but for Germany the pressure is already on.
Joachim Loew’s new-look team are aiming for revenge against the Netherlands, who helped relegate Germany in the inaugural Nations League last year, and get back on track after a humiliating World Cup group-stage exit as defending champions last summer.
Elsewhere in the opening two rounds of games, there’s a rematch from the 2016 European Championship as World Cup champions France host Iceland on Monday in Group H. England’s young squad face two eastern European teams in the Czech Republic and Montenegro in Group A.
Qualifying for next year’s 24-team tournament is low-risk for many top teams, since two nations qualify from each of the 10 groups. The revamped play-off system means 16 countries have a safety net.
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In other matches, World Cup semi-finalists Belgium host Russia in the pick of the opening-day games on Thursday. Portugal face in-form Ukraine on Friday and on Saturday Spain are against Norway and out-of-sorts Italy hosts Finland.
England manager Gareth Southgate is relying on young players even more than usual as qualifying begins.
His squad for the Czech Republic on Friday and Montenegro on Monday contains two players born in 2000 — Jadon Sancho and newcomer Callum Hudson-Odoi — and just one born in the 1980s, back-up goalkeeper Tom Heaton.
Declan Rice, the 20-year-old West Ham midfielder, is available to make his England debut after switching allegiance from Ireland.
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Of the older players from the England squad which reached the World Cup semi-finals, Jamie Vardy and Gary Cahill have retired from international football, while Ashley Young hasn’t been selected since the tournament in Russia.
The Czechs are missing first-choice goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik, who has an abdominal muscle injury, and playmaker Borek Dockal is a doubtful starter because of a calf muscle problem.
While Germany desperately need to get an opening win under their belts, the Netherlands are on a high after winning their Nations League group from France and Germany. The Dutch are also celebrating Ajax’s Champions League win over Real Madrid. Four players from that Ajax team could face Belarus on Thursday and then Germany, including young stars Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong.
Hosts must qualify
To mark 60 years of the European Championship, the final tournament spreads out across 12 countries from Ireland to Russia, a legacy of Michel Platini’s time as Uefa president.
If all the hosts were given spots at the tournament, they’d make up half the draw. That makes 2020 the first European Championship in 44 years where hosts must qualify. Some will miss out.
Azerbaijan face the toughest task in having to win a qualifying spot in Group E ahead of Croatia and Wales, while fellow hosts Hungary and Scotland aren’t exactly regulars at major tournaments, either.
Among the big-name hosts, Italy need to shake off poor recent form to reach the finals. England is the main host with seven games at Wembley, including the 2020 semi-finals and final.
Some teams already know they’ll get a second chance thanks to Uefa.
The top two teams in each group qualify automatically, just as they did for the 2016 tournament, but the play-off system is very different.
Play-off places are decided by how well teams performed in last year’s Nations League games. England and Portugal are among the 16 teams currently in play-off places, along with lesser lights such as Georgia and Belarus.
If a team with a play-off spot qualifies automatically, that spot goes to the next-best ranked team in the same Nations League tier. For example, Belgium goes to the play-offs if they don’t qualify automatically but at least one of Switzerland, Portugal, the Netherlands and England do.
The play-offs are in March 2020.
(11.45pm unless stated)
Kazakhstan v Scotland (7pm), Cyprus v San Marino (9pm), Netherlands v Belarus, Northern v Ireland Estonia, Croatia v Azerbaijan, Slovakia v Hungary,
Austria v Poland, Macedonia v Latvia, Israel v Slovenia, Belgium v Russia
Bulgaria v Montenegro (9pm), England v Czech Republic, Luxembourg v Lithuania, Portugal v Ukraine, Albania v Turkey, Andorra v Iceland, Moldova v France
Georgia v Switzerland (6pm), Gibraltar v Republic of Ireland (9pm), Malta v Faroe Islands (9pm), Sweden v Romania (9pm), Spain v Norway, Bosnia-Herzegovina v Armenia, Italy v Finland, Liechtenstein v Greece