The road to UEFA EURO 2020 has begun with the European Qualifiers for the 55 European national teams; here is our pick of the games in the opening days.
Friday 22 March
Portugal v Ukraine
Cristiano Ronaldo has scored eight goals in four UEFA club competition games against Ukrainian sides, and will look to translate that one-every-45-minutes strike-rate to international football when the European champions welcome Andriy Shevchenko’s team. In the countries’ only past encounters, Portugal lost 2-1 in Ukraine in 1998 World Cup qualifying but won the return 1-0.
Albania v Turkey
Albania punched above their weight to get to UEFA EURO 2016, and did not disgrace themselves even if they failed to survive the group stage. Despite a disappointing UEFA Nations League showing, Christian Panucci’s men will likely start this Group H contest as favourites, particularly given Turkey’s recent struggles: the UEFA EURO 2008 semi-finalists parted with veteran Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu last month and begin the campaign having not scored in their last four matches.
Saturday 23 March
Italy v Finland
The Finns’ lone win against Italy came at the 1912 Olympics, when the Nordic side forged on to the semi-finals; the Azzurri have prevailed in 11 of the subsequent 12 meetings, however. If Finland are to build on their recent UEFA Nations League success, striker Teemu Pukki will have to replicate his fine domestic form; Italy’s hopes of returning to a major finals are carried by players at opposite ends of the age spectrum: Sampdoria veteran Fabio Quagliarella, 36, and uncapped Roma midfielder Nicolò Zaniolo, 19, have both been called up.
Sunday 24 March
Netherlands v Germany
Dutch fans will need little reminding they beat Germany 3-0 in the UEFA Nations League in October – their first win over their neighbours since a 2002 friendly – and then sealed a finals place with a dramatic 2-2 draw in Gelsenkirchen. That last-four berth was some consolation for missing out on UEFA EURO 2016 and the 2018 World Cup; for their part, Germany are winless in five competitive games (D2 L3) and Joachim Löw has drafted uncapped trio Niklas Stark, Lukas Klostermann and Maximilian Eggestein.
Hungary v Croatia
The balance of footballing power between these neighbours may have shifted somewhat since they first met in 1940, but Hungary-Croatia games tend to be close: six of their ten matches – including the last three – have ended in draws. Hungary have won their first three home fixtures under new boss Marco Rossi; are they due a fourth against the 2018 World Cup finalists?
Monday 25 March
Kosovo v Bulgaria
Kosovo failed to win in their maiden European Qualifiers campaign, but shone in League D of the UEFA Nations League, finishing unbeaten to top their section, results including a 4-0 home victory over Azerbaijan. Absent from major finals since UEFA EURO 2004, Bulgaria are enduring a lean spell; will high-flying Kosovo take advantage in Pristina?
Portugal v Serbia
Serbia have reached two World Cups since the demise of the former Yugoslavia, but still no EUROs. Portugal and Ukraine are their biggest rivals in Group B, and the visitors may have inside information on the European champions. Ljubomir Fejsa and Andrija Živković play for Benfica, while 21-year-old forward Luka Jović (on loan from Benfica at Eintracht) is emerging as a major talent.
Tuesday 26 March
Switzerland v Denmark
Denmark triumphed 4-1 on their last trip to Basel, but that was a 1953 friendly and plenty has changed since. Both sides made the last 16 at the World Cup and won their UEFA Nations League groups, Switzerland getting to the finals with a 5-2 victory over Belgium. Danish forward Yussuf Poulsen and Swiss No2 keeper Yvon Mvogo are team-mates at Leipzig.