Top-flight domestic leagues are taking a break this weekend as the world’s biggest stars join up with their national teams. That’s great news for Neymar, who gets to escape the uncertain confines of Paris Saint-Germain for a pair of Brazil friendlies in Miami and Los Angeles (against Colombia and Peru, respectively). It’s also great news for the European stars who are keen to prove themselves ahead of next summer’s Euro 2020 tournament.
Here’s everything you need to know about the European Championships and the current state of qualification …
Remind me, what is the format of the qualifiers?
All 55 members of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, have been split into 10 groups. Group games are played each international window, and the top two teams from each group will qualify for the tournament, which accounts for 20 of the 24 places.
As for the final four spots, well, this is where it gets a bit complicated.
Previously, those four spots would have been distributed to the best third-place finishers, via playoffs. In this edition, however, the final four spots are being handed out based on performance in the 2018-19 edition of the UEFA Nations League.
Those four places will be contested in playoffs between 16 teams selected based on their performance in the Nations League. The 16-team playoffs will consist of four groups of four, who will play single-leg semifinals and finals to determine the final four teams.
The idea is to provide a “second chance” of qualification for smaller nations (or bigger ones who need a lifeline), while giving greater significance to the Nations League format.
There is no automatic qualification for the hosts in this tournament, as Euro 2020 will be staged across 12 countries. It’s a one-off concept to either “celebrate the 60th anniversary of the competition”, or to “make UEFA lots and lots of money”, depending on how cynical you are.
How far are we into qualification?
We are almost exactly halfway through a process that started in March 2019 and will finish in March 2020. Most teams have played four matches, although the four Nations League finalists (England, Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands) have only played two, due to their involvement in that tournament.
Have there been any shock results so far?
The groups are seeded and have yet to produce any huge surprises, although Scotland were humiliated 3-0 by Kazakhstan in their opener and 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia lost to surprise Group E leaders Hungary.
Additionally, reigning European champions Portugal have drawn both their games, leaving them languishing in fourth place. Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. have no need to panic just yet, though: They have six games to play and are guaranteed to have the safety net of the playoffs thanks to their Nations League victory.
There have also been a few huge score lines that have exposed the disparity in class between nations — Russia pummeled perennial whipping boys San Marino 9-0 in June, while Germany dished out an 8-0 hiding on Estonia a few days later.
What are the biggest matchups of this international break?
The headliner of this international break is undoubtedly the latest clash between bitter rivals Germany and the Netherlands. The rivalry, formed by historic political events and high-profile clashes on the field, will be reignited at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion on Friday.
The Dutch and the Germans were drawn together in the Nations League, where the Oranje beat the Germans 3-0 in Amsterdam and drew them 2-2 in Gelsenkirchen. Jogi Loew’s Germany, however, made amends by beating Ronald Koeman’s Holland 3-2 in the opening round of Euro 2020 qualification, courtesy of a dramatic 90th-minute winner.
There’s little to separate these two teams right now, but expect goals and some fireworks in their upcoming clash.
There aren’t really any other box office match-ups in this international break, but a few other neighboring countries who will be facing one another. Sweden will host Norway on Sunday, Russia welcome Kazakhstan on Monday, Croatia will look to vindicate their prior loss to Hungary on Tuesday, and Kosovo will stage a politically charged match with Montenegro next weekend.
The team to watch are undoubtedly Portugal. As previously mentioned, the reigning champions have only mustered a pair of draws, leaving them in fourth place in Group B. They face potentially tricky away games in Serbia and Lithuania. “We have reached a point where we have to win the remaining six games,” says coach Fernando Santos. That’s not strictly true, as they still have the playoff safety net, but the Portuguese will be expected to up their game.
Who are the favorites to win the competition?
Unsurprisingly, reigning world champions France are favorites with the bookmakers. World Cup semifinalists England are currently ranked second — and they may benefit from having the semifinals and final staged at Wembley Stadium. Belgium, Spain and Germany are all being given odds of around 7/1 (which will rank among the longest odds the Germans have experienced going into a tournament in a very long time).
Curiously, Portugal are pitched as rank outsiders at 16/1, while Croatia are even longer at around 25/1, despite their successes in the summer of 2018. Both could go deep and defy the odds.
How do I watch the qualifiers?
ESPN have the rights to European qualification and the good news is that they will show every single match across their broadcast channels and ESPN+ digital service.
Germany’s clash with the Netherlands will be shown on ESPN2 at 2:45 p.m. ET on Friday, and you can catch England’s game against Bulgaria on ESPN+ at noon ET on Saturday.
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