A look at what’s happening in 2022 World Cup qualifying in Europe on Thursday:
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is set to make his return to international soccer after an absence of nearly five years when Sweden plays Georgia. The 39-year-old AC Milan striker has come out of international retirement ahead of this summer’s European Championship, having last played for Sweden at Euro 2016. Spain hosts Greece in its first game since a 6-0 rout of Germany in the Nations League last year. Coach Luis Enrique has added a group of talented youngsters to the squad, including 18-year-old Barcelona playmaker Pedri Gonzalez. The coach will not be able to count on injured striker Gerard Moreno.
After failing to qualify for the last World Cup for the first time in six decades, Italy will be extra keen to get its campaign off to a positive start when it hosts Northern Ireland. Under Roberto Mancini, Italy hasn’t lost in its past 22 matches and is just eight games shy of equaling the Azzurri’s record undefeated streak. It has only lost once to Northern Ireland, in nine meetings, although that defeat saw it fail to qualify for the 1958 World Cup. Italy will be without Chelsea’s Jorginho, who has been a regular starter under Mancini, and Roma’s Bryan Cristante in midfield through injury. But Inter Milan midfielders Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi have been allowed to join up with the Italy team by the local health authority following a coronavirus outbreak at the Serie A club. Italy has conceded just three goals in its last 12 matches and that will pose more problems for the Northern Ireland attack, which is already without forwards Liam Boyce and Conor Washington. Bulgaria hosts Switzerland in the other Group C match. Switzerland is hoping to qualify for a fifth successive World Cup for the first time. Bulgaria has not reached the World Cup finals since 1998 where it went out in the group stage, four years after an impressive fourth-place finish.
Denmark is the only team in the group to have qualified for the World Cup this century, reaching the round of 16 in 2018, and Kasper Hjulmand’s side opens against Israel. Scotland, which is playing at the European Championship this June after reaching its first men’s tournament since the 1998 World Cup, takes on Austria. The minnows meet with Moldova hosting the Faeroe Islands.
England begins its qualifying campaign against San Marino at Wembley Stadium without first-choice goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and attacking players Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho, who are all injured. England coach Gareth Southgate is able, however, to call upon defenders John Stones and Luke Shaw and in-form midfielder Jesse Lingard, who are all back in the squad after long absences. Poland visits Hungary and Andorra hosts Albania in the other games.
Germany coach Joachim Low begins his farewell tour against Iceland in Duisberg. It’s Germany’s first game since Low announced he will be quitting after this summer’s European Championship. A good start to World Cup qualifying is vital for a team still smarting from its 6-0 defeat to Spain last November. ”I expect a good reaction form the team,” Low said on Wednesday. But Germany will have to do without Toni Kroos for the upcoming qualifiers against Iceland, Romania and North Macedonia after the Real Madrid midfielder left the team’s training camp on Tuesday with adductor problems. Atalanta left back Robin Gosens and Bayern Munich central defender Niklas Sule are also out. Bayern midfielder Joshua Kimmich joined up with the team on Monday after recovering from a knock.
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