European qualifiers preview: Netherlands, Spain, Germany in unusual positions (full schedule)

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Four match days remain in the group stage of qualification for Euro 2016 in France.

That means several big name nations have to pick up big points beginning Thursday if they want to avoid the playoff stage, let alone miss the tournament completely.

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To refresh: the top two teams in each group go directly to Euro 2016. The top-ranked third-place side will go through, while the other eight will pair off in a two-legged home-road tie to advance to France. Only the host nation has clinched a spot already.

Take Group A, where powerful Netherlands could be outside the playoff picture after this week. The Dutch have to host first-place Iceland on Thursday before a Sunday trip to No. 4 Turkey, the former opponent with a five-point lead on its hosts and the latter just two points behind Holland.

Group C finds Spain and Slovakia in the driver’s seat, but also en route to a head-on collision for first place. The Slovak side is guaranteed at least third place, but can take a 6-point advantage on second-place Spain with a road win on Saturday. Meanwhile, third-place Ukraine has a pair of relative minnows in Belarus and Macedonia, and will hope to make up its three points on Spain (which holds a five-goal advantage in differential and a 1-0 home win).

Group D has an open-door policy, as Germany has slipped up a bit. The World Cup champions are a point behind group-leading Poland, and host the leaders on Friday before another tough match-up with Scotland on Monday. If the White Eagles can get a point from Die Mannschaft, they’ll have a great chance to clinch a spot with minnows Gibraltar next.

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Sweden has a tough pair of Group G match-ups with leaders Austria and third-place Russia, but its Leonid Slutsky under pressure. The longtime CSKA Moscow coach is taking over for Fabio Capello, and has to make up four points on the No.2 Swedes, making a home win on Saturday all-but-necessary.

In groups H and I, Italy and Portugal have found tougher sledding than usual. The Italians should have themselves sorted by the end of the week, while Cristiano Ronaldo’s side has to avenge its home loss to Albania. The good news? Albania has to play two matches in this window, while Portugal can focus its energy on the Red and Blacks.

FULL WEEK’S SCHEDULE

Thursday, Sept. 3
Kazakhstan at Czech Republic
Latvia at Turkey
Iceland at Netherlands
Wales at Cyprus
Bosnia & Herzegovina at Belgium
Andorra at Israel
Croatia at Azerbaijan
Norway at Bulgaria
Malta at Italy

Friday, Sept. 4
Northern Ireland at Faroe Islands
Romania at Hungary
Finland at Greece
Albania at Denmark
Ireland at Gibraltar
Armenia at Serbia

Saturday, Sept. 5
Lithuania at Estonia
England at San Marino
Slovenia at Switzerland
Sweden at Russia
Moldova at Austria
Liechtenstein at Montenegro

Sunday, Sept. 6
Czech Republic at Latvia
Netherlands at Turkey
Kazakhstan at Iceland
Israel at Wales
Belgium at Cyprus
Andorra at Bosnia & Herzegovina
Croatia at Norway
Azerbaijan at Malta
Bulgaria at Italy

Monday, Sept. 7
Georgia at Ireland
Germany at Scotland
Hungary at Northern Ireland
Faroe Islands at Finland
Greece at Romania
Denmark at Armenia
Portugal at Albania

Tuesday, Sept. 8
Spain at Macedonia
Ukraine at Slovakia
Luxembourg at Belarus
San Marino at Lithuania
Switzerland at England
Estonia at Slovenia
Montenegro at Moldova
Russia at Liechtenstein
Austria at Sweden