Italy, Mbappe, Spain, Ronaldo: What to look out for in Euro 2024 qualifying

AFP , Wednesday 22 Mar 2023

Three months on from Argentina's dramatic World Cup final victory over France, international football returns this week as Euro 2024 qualifying gets underway.

Italy players celebrate with the trophy after beating England in the final of the last European Championship Michael Regan / POOL/AFP/File

Germany, as hosts, are exempt from the qualifying process but the rest of Europe's heavyweights begin the process this week.

Sport picks out some of the storylines to follow.

Italy back

Italy were the highest-profile nation to miss out on the World Cup in Qatar. They now begin their defence of the European Championship trophy with a mouthwatering showdown against England in a repeat of the Euro 2020 final which the Azzurri won on penalties at Wembley.

Roberto Mancini remains in charge despite the failed World Cup qualifying campaign, but there are some new faces in his squad.

One man to look out for will be Mateo Retegui, a 23-year-old Argentina-born forward who was the top scorer in the Argentinian league with Tigre last year.

"Years ago they used to say that to play for the national team you needed to be born in Italy. But the world has changed and all national teams have players who are naturalised or come from other nations," Mancini said.

Italy will be expected to advance from qualifying Group C along with England given the top two teams in each section go through. However, Ukraine may cause those sides some problems -- they play England away on Sunday.

Mbappe takes the armband

France coach Didier Deschamps needed a new captain after long-serving skipper Hugo Lloris retired following the World Cup.

He has opted to give the armband to Kylian Mbappe, deciding that the superstar Paris Saint-Germain forward is ready for the role at the age of 24.

"Kylian ticked all the boxes to have that extra responsibility," said Deschamps of the player who scored that breathtaking hat-trick in the World Cup final.

With centre-back Raphael Varane also standing down, there is a new look to France as they prepare to begin qualifying at home to the Netherlands on Friday before a trip to the Republic of Ireland.

Mike Maignan of AC Milan will be the new first-choice goalkeeper, while Nice midfielder Khephren Thuram received a first call-up -- the son of Lilian Thuram joins his elder brother Marcus in the squad.

New era for Spain

Spain responded to their disappointing World Cup showing by sacking coach Luis Enrique, with Luis De La Fuente named as his replacement.

The 61-year-old De La Fuente had previously coached Spain's youth teams since 2013, most recently the Under-23 side.

De La Fuente has overseen sweeping changes to the squad, including the notable decision to recall Kepa Arrizabalaga, the Chelsea goalkeeper.

With Sergio Busquets retiring and his Barcelona colleague Jordi Alba not featuring, there are now no survivors from the team that won Euro 2012.

Spain are in qualifying Group A where they kick off at home in Malaga against a Norway side missing the injured Erling Haaland and then face Scotland in Glasgow next Tuesday.

Ronaldo still there for Portugal

Those who thought Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Saudi Arabia following the World Cup signalled the end of his international carer were surprised as the 38-year-old was named in new Portugal coach Roberto Martinez's first squad.

"I do not look at the age," said Martinez when asked about his decision to include the former Real Madrid and Manchester United man.

Ronaldo holds the world record for men's international goals with 118. He holds the European men's record of 196 caps, a tally that also equals the world landmark with Kuwait's Bader Al-Mutawa.

Ronaldo will expect to claim that record outright, and add to his goal tally, when Portugal face Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

The 2016 European champions also play Iceland, Slovakia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in Group J.

New faces on the touchline

Spain and Portugal are far from the only European nations going into qualifying with a new coach.

Ronald Koeman returned as coach of the Netherlands after Louis van Gaal departed following the World Cup.

After eight years in charge of Portugal, Fernando Santos is the new man in charge of Poland.

Italy-born German Domenico Tedesco has replaced Martinez as coach of Belgium.

Michael O'Neill has returned for a second spell as coach of Northern Ireland. He took them to the last 16 of Euro 2016.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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