Euro 2024: Defending champions Italy joins Spain, Croatia in tough group

Italy celebrates after winning the Euro 2020.[Courtesy]

Italy and Spain will add to their storied European Championship rivalry next year, after the defending champion and two-time recent winner were drawn together in a tough group with World Cup semifinalist Croatia and Albania on Saturday.

Euro 2020 winner Italy fulfilled predictions as the most difficult and dramatic option to come from the pot of lowest-ranked teams at the back end of a draw ceremony that was pranked by a British social media comedian as its name was called.

Italy beat Spain in the semifinals to win its European title, and the Spanish eliminated the Italians when winning back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2012, including a 4-0 rout in the final nine years ago in Kyiv, Ukraine.

“It is surely the most difficult group,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić, whose team went deep at the past two World Cups despite hard starts.

The draw ensured the other Euro 2020 semifinal also will be a rematch in Germany next year. England will again face Denmark, which it beat to reach the final. Their group also includes Slovenia and Serbia.

France, the World Cup finalist a year ago, was drawn with Austria, the Netherlands and the winner of a playoff bracket in March involving Poland, Estonia, Wales and Finland.

Kylian Mbappé scored twice in each of France’s home and away wins over the Dutch in their qualifying group this year.

Germany, on a run of poor results, will open its home tournament against Scotland on June 14 at Bayern Munich’s stadium. The group includes Hungary and Switzerland.

Germany lost six of its 13 friendlies this year and will not play a competitive game until facing Scotland to start the month-long tournament.

Portugal, still led by Cristiano Ronaldo, was the only team to come through qualifying groups with a perfect winning record and will play Turkey, the Czech Republic and the playoff winner from Georgia, Luxembourg, Euro 2004 champion Greece, and Kazakhstan.

Ronaldo will be 39 when Euro 2024 starts and likely the only player still around from when Portugal, Turkey and the Czechs all were in the same group at Euro 2008. Then, Portugal and Turkey advanced.

Belgium was grouped with Romania, Slovakia, and the playoff winner from Israel, Iceland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine. That playoff bracket could see a final between Ukraine and Israel with a place at Euro 2024 at stake.

Just 21 of the 24 tournament teams are confirmed, with three placeholders in the draw for the eventual winners of qualifying playoffs. The 12 teams in three knockout brackets will play single-leg semifinals and finals from March 21-26.

At the finals tournament, third-place teams in four of the six groups must advance to make a balanced bracket in the round of 16.

The 24-team format started at Euro 2016 and history shows earning three points from three games with a goal difference that is not negative is enough to reach the knockout stage.

The draw was made at a waterside concert hall in the northern port city Hamburg, and was disrupted by unexplained noises clearly heard on stage and in the international broadcast. A British social media prankster posted footage showing how he placed cell phone calls to make the noise.

Hamburg is among 10 cities that will host the 51 games, and only Düsseldorf’s stadium was not also used at the 2006 World Cup.

The final is on July 14 at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin which also staged the final in 2006. That, of course, was won by Italy.

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