Italy hit by injuries as Germans and Dutch renew rivalry
If Germany’s players are tired of facing the Netherlands, they’re not showing it.
Two of European soccer’s biggest rivals will meet for the fourth time in 11 months on Friday in European Championship qualifying.
Germany looks to continue its recent turnaround in form, while the Dutch return to action for the first time since losing the Nations League final to Portugal in June.
Already, injuries are dogging Europe’s top teams. Italy has four players out for Thursday’s visit to Armenia, while France is without Paul Pogba and Belgium is missing Eden Hazard and his brother Thorgan.
RIVALS MEET AGAIN
With 12 goals in their last three meetings, Germany’s games against the Netherlands have been entertaining.
Friday’s match will be the first time the Germans have hosted the Dutch since Virgil van Dijk’s last-gasp equalizer earned his team a spot in the Nations League semifinals last year.
“The Netherlands guys are flexible, adjustable, quick and cool-headed in front of goal,” Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said. “We’ve got to be careful and wide awake.”
With five goals in three league games this season for Leipzig, Timo Werner will be hoping to replicate his club form at international level for the Germans.
Northern Ireland is the surprise early leader in Group C but must still play Germany and the Netherlands twice each.
The squad Italy is taking to Armenia and Finland isn’t the one coach Roberto Mancini wanted.
Four players from his original selection, most recently forward Lorenzo Insigne, have been replaced because of injury. Besides Insigne, defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Mattia De Sciglio, and midfielder Bryan Cristante are out.
Italy has a three-point lead in Group J. The team has won its last five games and is unbeaten in almost a year.
In Group H, World Cup champion France is without Pogba, who picked up an ankle injury in Manchester United’s draw against Southampton.
That gives Arsenal midfielder Matteo Guendouzi a chance to make his debut for France, which along with Turkey and Iceland is one of three teams in Group H with nine points. France can build a lead with wins over Albania on Saturday and Andorra on Tuesday.
After Portugal’s slow start with two draws, Cristiano Ronaldo and teenager João Félix are back together this month.
Félix, touted at home as the new Ronaldo, was included again in the national team’s squad for the Group B games against Serbia on Saturday and Lithuania on Tuesday.
The 19-year-old Félix hadn’t played with his idol since joining Atlético Madrid from Benfica in the offseason.
Félix and Ronaldo played together in the Nations League, which Portugal won.
A feature of Gareth Southgate’s impressive tenure as England coach has been his willingness to call up the country’s brightest young players, likely influenced by his previous role in charge of the under-21 team.
Wan-Bissaka, 21, was the latest youngster brought into the squad ahead of home qualifiers against Bulgaria and Kosovo at Wembley Stadium, but the Manchester United right back was withdrawn because of a back problem.
Young players hoping to make their first appearances include playmakers Mason Mount and James Maddison, who have started the Premier League season well with Chelsea and Leicester, respectively.
England leads Group A after winning its opening two qualifying games, including a 5-0 rout of the second-place Czech squad.
MORENO IN CHARGE
Spain enters the qualifying week with coach Robert Moreno’s first squad since he took over permanently from Luis Enrique.
The former assistant brought back players such as Paco Alcácer of Borussia Dortmund and Dani Ceballos, who has been thriving since joining Arsenal in the Premier League this season.
Moreno had been in charge since Luis Enrique stepped away in March because of his daughter’s illness, but the former Barcelona coach was still involved in the player lists. Luis Enrique’s daughter died last week because of a type of bone cancer.
Spain leads Group F with 12 points and plays at Romania on Thursday before hosting the Faroe Islands.
AROUND THE GROUPS
Belgium is still cruising toward qualification. Even with Eden and Thorgan Hazard both out injured, the Belgians remain the strong favorites against San Marino on Friday and Scotland on Monday in Group I.
Russia can tighten its hold on second place if it beats Scotland on Friday and Kazakhstan three days later.
World Cup finalist Croatia is outside the qualifying spots in Group E and its chances could take a further blow if it can’t beat second-place Slovakia on Friday and Azerbaijan on Monday. Hungary leads, while Euro 2016 semifinalist Wales is fourth and in danger of missing the tournament.
Group D leader Ireland can take a big step toward qualification by beating Switzerland on Thursday. Poland has four wins from four matches in Group G and faces Slovenia on Friday and Austria on Monday.
James Ellingworth is at www.twitter.com/jellingworth