Europe's top teams get ready to start Euro 2024 qualifying

PSG's Kylian Mbappe applauds fans at the end of the French League One soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Rennes at the Parc des Princes in Paris, Sunday, March 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Three months after the World Cup ended, qualifying for the next European Championship starts this week with several of the biggest teams looking to rebound.

France came within a penalty shootout of winning back-to-back World Cup titles, losing to Argentina in the final, but Spain, Germany and Italy all went through humbling experiences either before or during last year's tournament in Qatar.

Spain has not won a major tournament since Euro 2012. While it reached the semifinals at Euro 2020, elimination in the round of 16 at the World Cup was a setback for a promising new generation of players.

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Germany's decline since winning the World Cup in 2014 continued after being knocked out in the group stage last year — for the second straight World Cup.

And defending European champion Italy didn't even qualify for the tournament in Qatar.

Elsewhere, Belgium went into the tournament as the second-ranked FIFA team but couldn't make it out of the group stage; Portugal's young team reached the quarterfinals but was eliminated by Morocco in what was likely Cristiano Ronaldo's last World Cup; and Euro 2020 finalist England endured its earliest elimination under coach Gareth Southgate after losing to France in the quarterfinals.

ONE LAST CHANCE?

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Southgate said he needed time to consider his future after losing to France, but quickly decided to stay. With his contract up in December 2024, it's possible that next year's European tournament could be his last as England coach.

Despite the early exit in Qatar, there were encouraging performances for England, including the manner in which the team dominated large spells even in the loss to France.

Expect Jude Bellingham to emerge as the central figure. Marcus Rashford is injured for upcoming games against Italy and Ukraine, but is having the best season of his career.

SHINING STARS

Barcelona is back at the top of the Spanish league and Real Madrid is still the team to beat in the Champions League. But the national team's troubles go on.

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It has been a humbling period for a country that won back-to-back European Championships in 2008 and 2012, with the 2010 World Cup title in between.

The loss to Morocco in the round of 16 in in Qatar came despite widespread hope that Barcelona midfield pair Gavi and Pedri could lead a new era of success.

Spain's hopes of getting off to a winning start against Norway on Saturday in coach Luis de la Fuente's first match have been aided by Erling Haaland's withdrawal from his national squad because of injury.

ITALY'S COMEBACK

One moment, Italy coach Roberto Mancini is leading his nation to the European Championship title. The next, he's enduring the humiliation of failing to qualify for the World Cup.

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He has a chance to start redeeming himself on Thursday against England, the team Italy defeated on penalties in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium.

After failing to qualify for the last two World Cups, it's hard to know what to expect from Italy. But based on recent years, it's unlikely to be boring.

MARTINEZ IS BACK

After leading Belgium's golden generation, Roberto Martinez now gets to take over an exciting Portugal squad.

While Ronaldo is in the twilight of his career at the age of 38 and playing his club soccer in Saudi Arabia, Martinez has a host of stars to pick from, including Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Diogo Jota.

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He didn't win a major trophy with Belgium, but he could have the tools to lead Portugal to success, starting with matches against Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.

BACK TO BASICS

Germany coach Hansi Flick suggested the national team needed a rethink after early elimination from the World Cup.

“For years we are talking about new goalkeepers and wingbacks, but Germany was always able to defend well. We need the basics,” Flick said in Qatar.

With Germany hosting next year's European Championship, it will have to prepare for the tournament without competitive action. But that also gives Flick the chance to experiment.

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He has picked five new players for the friendlies against Peru and Belgium.

MBAPPE'S MISSION

Not even a hat trick from Kylian Mbappe could stop Lionel Messi from winning the one major trophy that had eluded the Argentina great. But even in defeat in the World Cup final, Mbappe proved he is the next soccer great.

The Paris Saint-Germain striker could make up for the disappointment of losing in Qatar by leading his team to the European title in Germany.

France will face the Netherlands and Ireland.

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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