Dutch on verge of missing out on Euro 2016
PARIS (AP) Qualifying for the largest-ever European Championship was supposed to be easy.
With only two games left to play, however, the Netherlands is in danger of missing out, and Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his teammates are also close to elimination.
Four teams – Iceland, the Czech Republic, England and Austria – have already qualified to join host France, with 19 of the 24 places still up for grabs.
The top two from the nine groups and the best third-place team qualify automatically. The eight remaining third-place teams can qualify through the playoffs in November.
Here’s a look at the nine groups:
The Netherlands is facing the real possibility of failing to qualify for the European Championship for the first time since 1984.
Iceland and the Czech Republic are already through, with Turkey third and playing the top two teams in its final push for a playoff berth.
If Turkey beats both, it will reach the playoffs and eliminate the Dutch.
The Netherlands plays last-place Kazakhstan in Astana on Saturday and takes on the Czechs the following Tuesday in Amsterdam.
The Dutch have a long injury list to contend with. Captain Arjen Robben has not recovered from a groin injury. Also out injured are Daryl Janmaat, Davy Klaassen, Quincy Promes, Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij.
The expanded format of Euro 2016 offers one clear advantage: big stars from small countries will get a chance to shine.
In Group B, Gareth Bale has pushed Wales to the top of the standings, ahead of star-studded Belgium.
Wales has not qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup. But with clutch goals, Bale and his teammates need only one point from their last two matches. If it doesn’t come in Bosnia on Saturday, then likely in front of a home crowd against Andorra next Tuesday.
Belgium, led by Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, could be the first to qualify if it beats Andorra on Saturday.
For the playoff spot, Israel is in position ahead of Bosnia and Cyprus.
Spain is a win away from clinching direct qualification, and it has two chances to do so.
A win against Luxembourg could settle it on Friday.
Two points behind Spain, Slovakia will also qualify if it wins either of its remaining matches against Belarus and Luxembourg.
Germany needs a point from its games against Ireland in Dublin on Thursday and Georgia in Leipzig on Sunday.
Poland, second with 17 points, is in the best position to secure the other direct qualification place, leaving Ireland and Scotland to scrap for what’s most likely a playoff spot.
Poland plays Scotland in Glasgow on Thursday before hosting Ireland in Warsaw on Sunday.
Although Ireland has 15 points, two more than Scotland, the Scots will be banking on three points from their final game Sunday against Gibraltar in Faro, Portugal.
Ireland is hoping for a favor from Poland. If the Poles beat Scotland, then one point from their two games could be enough for third place even if the Scots win their final game. Ireland’s goal difference is plus-12, while Scotland is plus-4.
England has already secured its place and coach Roy Hodgson is expected to experiment with his team in the matches against Estonia and Lithuania.
Switzerland is second, the other automatic qualification spot, but is only three points above Slovenia. The Swiss host San Marino, where a victory would almost certainly seal second place and qualification, before it travels to Estonia.
Slovenia will have to beat Lithuania and San Marino and hope for Switzerland to slip up.
After failing to qualify in 13 previous attempts, Northern Ireland can secure a maiden appearance at the tournament with a win against Greece on Thursday.
Northern Ireland leads Romania by one point, with Hungary three points further back.
”Two draws or one win does us,” Northern Ireland midfielder Stuart Dallas said. ”At the same time, Hungary know they need to get maximum points from their two remaining games, which is no easy task.”
Finland, which plays at Romania before hosting Northern Ireland, has still a chance to finish second.
Ibrahimovic’s two goals for Paris Saint-Germain over the weekend was good news for his country, too.
The striker is on mission with his national team as Sweden remains under the threat of Montenegro in the battle for a third-place finish after losing to Austria and Russia.
With Austria already qualified as group winner, Russia sits second, two points above Sweden, with Montenegro one further back.
Italy needs one win from its final two matches to secure qualification.
The team has a two-point lead over Norway, which it faces in its last qualifying match on Tuesday. First up, though, is a trip to Azerbaijan on Saturday.
”We have two match points and we don’t want to have to wait for the second one,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said. ”It won’t be a walkover.”
Norway hosts Malta in its penultimate match.
Croatia is two points behind Norway and can secure third place and a spot in the playoffs with victory over fourth-place Bulgaria. Bulgaria hosts Azerbaijan on the final day, while Croatia travels to Malta.
Portugal has a three-point lead over Denmark in the only five-team group, with Albania one point further back.
The top three teams are already guaranteed of at least a playoff berth. Both Portugal and Albania have a match in hand on Denmark.
A draw against Denmark will be enough for Portugal on Thursday. The team then plays last-place Serbia, which had three points deducted after its qualifier with Albania was abandoned when a drone carrying a pro-Albanian flag flew over the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade, prompting a brawl involving players and some Serbian fans.
Albania hosts Serbia on Thursday.