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Top teams in good shape as EURO 2020 qualifying reaches climax

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With the Netherlands missing out on Euro 2016 and Italy absent from the World Cup in 2018, some of Europe’s traditional soccer powers have surprisingly failed to advance to recent major international tournaments.

Don’t expect any big shocks when qualification for next year’s European Championship wraps up over the coming days.

Six teams – Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia and Ukraine – have already booked their places in the tournament and the remaining 14 automatic qualifiers will be determined after the final group games.

World champion France, European champion Portugal, and heavyweights such as Germany, England and the Netherlands are in good shape to finish in the top two in their respective groups, ensuring spots in the Europe-wide finals taking place in June and July.

There are big opportunities for Europe’s so-called lesser soccer nations, too. Finland, for example, needs only to beat Liechtenstein to qualify for its first major tournament.

France, the World Cup winner last year, is tied on points with Turkey in Group H and will secure a top-two finish by beating Moldova on Thursday. In case of an upset in that game in Paris, the French have another shot at qualification at Albania on Sunday.

Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, is guaranteed to advance in the defense of its title with wins over Lithuania at home and Luxembourg away – the bottom two teams in Group B.

England needs one win from its final two games – at home to Montenegro on Thursday and away to Kosovo on Sunday – to top Group A.

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And in Group C, Germany and the Netherlands are tied on points and need a maximum of four points from their final two qualifiers. Both have to play Northern Ireland, which is three points behind in third place.

The last four qualifying spots for the 24-team Euros will be decided in the playoffs in March.

RONALDO’S CHALLENGE

Could Cristiano Ronaldo fail to qualify for a major tournament?

UEFA would hate to see the Portugal star miss out, but his team has lacked a spark in qualifying and is eight points off Group B leader Ukraine.

Portugal is favored to beat Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday to secure second place.

Still, there’s little margin for error. Dropped points could allow Serbia to overtake, forcing Portugal into the playoffs.

ENGLAND LANDMARK

England will be playing its 1,000th men’s international in the match against Montenegro and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways, including recognizing the notable contributions of former players and managers. Players will wear individual “legacy numbers” on their jerseys.

England manager Gareth Southgate is hoping a line can be drawn following scenes last month when his players were racially abused by some Bulgaria fans during England’s 6-0 win in Sofia. The game was stopped on two occasions by the referee. England’s match away to Montenegro in March was also marred by racist chanting toward England’s black players, notably Raheem Sterling.

“The players will want to move on, really,” Southgate said. “I think, for all of them, they dealt with it brilliantly and it would be wrong not to discuss it at all but I know that they want to get on with the football.”

Kosovo, which was accepted as a member of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016, is third in the group and could secure automatic qualification with a win at the Czech Republic on Thursday and a draw against England.

FINALLY FINLAND?

Finland is the only Nordic team never to have qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship. That could all change this week.

The Finns are second in Group J, five points clear of both Armenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and will join Italy in advancing to the finals with a win at home against last-placed Liechtenstein on Friday or if Bosnia fails to beat the Italians. Finland’s second chance, if needed, comes against Greece on Monday.

Finland is coached by a primary school teacher, Markku Kanerva, who led the country to a first ever European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and is impressing with the senior team a decade on.

Teemu Pukki has seven goals in qualifying as the team looks to go further than it ever did with past greats such as Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen.

CROATIA AT RISK

Croatia is finding European qualifying harder than last year’s World Cup.

The Croatians lead the evenly matched Group E but if they lose to Slovakia on Saturday the World Cup finalists could end up relying on other results to go their way.

Another team in a fight to qualify is Switzerland, which is third in Group D behind Ireland and Denmark, but is a big favorite against Gibraltar.

PLAYOFF SHOOTOUT

The playoffs offer a last chance for unsuccessful teams, but it’s a complex process.

Sixteen teams who didn’t qualify automatically will be ranked according to their divisions from the 2018 Nations League and put into four single-elimination brackets.

At the bottom end, there’s the League D playoff, which is guaranteed to hand one team its debut at a major championship. Georgia and Belarus have secured a place in that playoff mini-tournament and will likely be joined by Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The highest division almost certainly won’t have enough unqualified teams to make a four-team bracket, so will recruit extras from lower tiers. That could hand League A’s Iceland a fortunate draw with League C teams such as Bulgaria and Israel.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Dusseldorf, Germany, contributed to this story

Despite Germany injury woes, Boateng and Hummels still frozen out

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Germany may be facing an injury crisis at the back, but that still has not forced Joachim Low’s hand.

After 2018 World Cup disappointment, Low vowed he would never call up Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels again, freezing the two veterans out as part of an overhaul of the national team squad he hoped would turn the country’s fortunes. Now, with a number of injuries to the back line, some wondered if Low would take back his promise and look to the veterans for cover.

With Niklas Sule suffering a torn ACL, Antonio Ruediger struggling with a nagging groin problem, and Thilo Kehrer sidelined with a long-term foot injury, Low stayed the course and kept both Boateng and Hummels out of the team, announcing the squad for upcoming Euro qualifiers against Belarus and Northern Ireland on Friday morning.

Instead, the boss called upon Borussia Monchengladbach captain Mattias Ginter who will partner with a host of young and inexperienced defenders. The squad includes SC Freiburg defender Robin Koch and Hertha center-back Niklas Stark, who between the two share a single international cap – Koch made his Germany debut last month, while Stark has yet to appear in an international match. Also in the squad is 23-year-old Bayer Leverkusen center-back Jonathan Tah, owner of eight international caps for Germany including starts in three of the last five Euro qualifiers.

Finally, a surprise inclusion was Emre Can, despite having been sent off last time out for Germany and is therefore suspended for the Belarus game. Can is capable at center-back, where he was playing at the time of his red card, although his more natural position is defensive midfield.

Keeping Boateng out of the squad is a justifiable decision by Low, especially after the Bayern defender was sent off just 10 minutes into their last match against Eintracht Frankfurt, leading to a heavy 5-1 defeat that left the club three points off the top of the table. Boateng has looked off the pace all season and has been left on the bench by recently fired Bayern boss Nico Kovac six times across all competitions this season.

The Hummels decision is more questionable as Borussia Dortmund is unbeaten in league play since the start of September and has kept three consecutive Bundesliga clean sheets, including one against current leaders Gladbach. Hummels also captained the side in the wild 3-2 comeback win over Inter this week that saw Dortmund completely dominate the second half after falling 2-0 down.

Niklas Sule tears ACL, will miss rest of season and likely Euros

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Bayern Munich defender Niklas Sule suffered an ACL tear that will cause him to miss the rest of the club season as well as Euro 2020, the club announced.

“Apparently, the season is over for him, he can forget about the Euros,” said Bayern club president Uli Hoeness.

Sule has become a critical player for both club and country over the past year. He had been on the pitch for every minute of Bayern’s league campaign until his injury in the 12th minute of the 2-2 draw with Augsburg, and Germany manager Joachim Low had tabbed Sule as a long-term solution at center-back after publicly moving on from Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng in the hopes of overhauling the national team squad.

Sule represents a massive loss for Germany, having started and played the full 90 minutes in each of the past 11 matches for the national side. He has been the lone constant in the national team defense while his center-back partnership is a rotating door of players such as Emre Can, Robin Koch, Mattias Ginter, Jonathan Tah, and Antonio Rudiger. It is unclear whether Low would re-consider his stance on Hummels and/or Boateng with his defensive situation thrown into disarray.

At the club level, Bayern has options to replace Sule but almost all of them represent a downgrade. Benjamin Pavard, who played full-back for the French national team during their 2018 World Cup run, has transitioned to center-back and seen significant playing time already this season. Lucas Hernandez is also a relative newcomer to the center-back role like Pavard, while Boateng could potentially find his way back into the starting lineup having made just four appearances so far this season.

Bayern Munich, Germany mainstay Sule tears ACL

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Bayern Munich suffered more than dropped points on Saturday, as the club has confirmed that center back Niklas Sule has suffered a torn ACL and will undergo surgery on Sunday.

Sule, 24, was injured in the 2-2 draw at Augsburg and is one of only five players to have started every game for the Bavarians. He’s also gone 90 minutes in each of Germany’s last 11 matches.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap ]

Bayern boss Niko Kovac brought in David Alaba against Germany, skipping over Jerome Boateng. He’s used Javi Martinez at defensive mid in recent weeks, but that may change, with academy product Lars Lucas

Sule was partnered with Benjamin Pavard on Saturday, a surprise, and left back Lucas Hernandez has also played center back during a tumultuous early season.

It’s a huge blow to Bayern’s goal of an eighth-straight Bundesliga crown. The club is one point back of first at the start of action Sunday, one of nine teams within two points of the top.

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland