The final round of UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers are upon us this weekend, with teams looking to either punch their tickets to next summer’s continent-wide, 24 team final celebration, or merely to survive and advance. It all begins Thursday at noon Eastern, when Turkey (7-9) take on Iceland (43-10) from Istanbul. The fun doesn’t stop until the end of Matchday 10 on Tuesday. From there, well, it gets complicated.
Next year’s tournament coincides with the European Championships’ 60th birthday, and will involve a special, one-off format. Twelve countries, from Azerbaijan to Spain, will serve as co-hosts. Thus, no one will qualify automatically as host country. Instead, for the first time, each of the 24 teams will have to earn their spot in this expanded field. At press time, six countries have already qualified as either group winners or runners-up: Belgium, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Ukraine. An additional 14 will join the field by the end of the weekend in the traditional (and easiest to explain) method.
All is not lost, however, for those not fortunate enough to finish in the top two of the ten groups. The best sixteen remaining teams will compete along four playoff paths for the remaining four spots. Those who mocked last year’s inaugural Nations League tournament continue to do so at their own peril. The winners of the sixteen Nations League groups last year are guaranteed at least a playoff spot this year. In case a team has already qualified for Euro 2020, the next best team in line gets the spot.
As for the games themselves, Turkey need only a draw against Iceland to qualify the old-fashioned way, while Iceland need the win. That would send France (1-41) through in Group H, regardless of what they do against hapless Moldova (125-1). Likewise, England (1-11) can advance to the finals with a draw against Montenegro (50-1), while the Czech Republic (5-7) v. Kosovo (87-20) winner will most likely join them in Group A. All the drama in Group B depends on whether Nations winners Portugal, or Serbia, will join Ukraine. Both need a better result than the other to settle things before the final day.
On Friday, the story of the qualifying round reaches its likely fairy tale ending. In Group J, Finland (1-16) will qualify for their first ever international football tournament if they beat Lichtenstein (75-1), or if Bosnia (38-17) fail to beat Italy (13-10). In Group F, Sweden (31-20) can knock out Romania (37-19), and join Spain with a win. Group D is wide open, with Denmark and Switzerland each needing a better result than the other to get through before Monday.
Croatia (7-15) can also qualify out of Group E with a draw against Slovakia (7-1) on Saturday. The Netherlands (10-21) will qualify if they can get a point from Northern Ireland (15-2). That, and a German (1-12) win over Belarus (50-1) would send Die Mannschaft through in Group C. A point will also suffice for Austria (3-10) against North Macedonia (14-1), to join Poland in Group G. Group I is settled, but Russia (14-5) against Belgium (EVEN) might be worth the watch anyway.
Three more days of games take place from Sunday to Tuesday, with most teams either desperate to claim a spot or having nothing to play for but an exhibition for the supporters. From there, the qualifying play-offs begin with semifinals on March 26, and four finals on the 31st. Enjoy the show!