GENEVA (AP) — Denmark and Albania advanced to the European Championship on Friday and title-holder Italy got a crucial win ahead of a showdown game against Ukraine.
Italy beat North Macedonia 5-2 to both avenge its elimination in the 2022 World Cup qualifying playoffs and ensure it needs only a draw against Ukraine on Monday to secure a place at Euro 2024 in Germany. At stake is second place behind group winner England, which beat Malta 2-0 Friday.
Robert Lewandowski and Poland must go through the playoffs in March after a 1-1 draw at home to the Czech Republic ended its chance of advancing directly with group leader Albania.
Albania kicked off earlier needing only a point in Moldova to secure its Euro 2024 place and did just enough in a 1-1 draw.
Denmark ensured it will finish top of Group H by beating closest rival Slovenia 2-1 thanks to a 54th-minute goal by midfielder Thomas Delaney.
That set up another decisive final game Monday: Slovenia hosts Kazakhstan needing only a draw to return to the Euros for the first time since 2000. Kazakhstan, which beat San Marino 3-1, has never qualified for a major tournament.
England secured its place last month and a 2-0 win over Malta at Wembley Stadium was routine, as was Harry Kane scoring his 25th goal in a prolific season for England and Bayern Munich.
The only surprising moment of drama was Kane being shown a yellow card after he was adjudged to have dived in the penalty area.
England is on course to be among the group winners with the best records who will be in the pot of top-seeded teams when the Euro 2024 tournament draw is made on Dec. 2 in Hamburg.
Including Denmark and Albania, 13 countries have now qualified for the 24-team tournament, and eight more will follow by the time the qualifying groups end Tuesday.
The final three places are decided in the 12-team playoffs scheduled from March 21-26 for teams that did not finish in the top two of a qualifying group.
Italy has bad recent memories of playing North Macedonia at home. In March last year, Italy lost 1-0 to a stoppage-time goal in Palermo and was eliminated from the 2022 World Cup playoffs.
There was redemption Friday at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Even when a three-goal half-time lead had been cut back to 3-2 entering the closing minutes, Italy rose again rather than faltered.
“I liked the team in the second half,” Italy coach Luciano Spalletti said. “These matches reveal the level of personality and these lads have it. After the scoreline became 3-2, I expected them to suffer, to sit back. Instead, they responded very well, trying to attack even more.”
Brazilian coach Sylvinho is going to Euro 2024 with his Albania team.
The former Arsenal and Barcelona left-back was appointed in January and has led Albania on a seven-game unbeaten run after starting qualifying with a 1-0 loss at Poland in March.
Sylvinho has found success after lasting less than a year at his previous jobs coaching Lyon and Corinthians.
Albania needed just one point from its final two Group E games, after outperforming the higher-ranked Poles and Czechs, and got it at the first attempt Friday. Veteran forward Sokol Cikalleshi’s 25th-minute penalty put Albania ahead before Moldova equalized in the 87th.
“After the last whistle, but really after nine months, working every day, it’s a dream, it’s a dream,” Sylvinho told Albanian media. “In fact, I should enjoy it. And that is why I am very pleased, like all of you.”
Thousands of Albanian fans gathered at the main Skanderbeg and Mother Teresa squares in Tirana to celebrate the result by waving national flags and setting off fireworks. Cars drove through the center of the city blaring their horns and loud national music.
After the 1-1 draw in Poland, Albania is two points ahead of the Czech Republic and three clear of Poland which has finished its program. Moldova trails by four points but can still take second place and qualify.
Albania hosts the Faeroe Islands in the final round Monday, when the Czechs host Moldova.
Entry to the three-tiered playoffs is decided by standings in the Nations League groups played last year before the World Cup in Qatar.
The top-tier bracket of four teams will include Poland and either Croatia or Wales. Also Italy, if it loses to Ukraine on Monday.
The second-tier bracket will possibly include Israel and certainly Bosnia-Herzegovina and Finland, which beat Northern Ireland 4-0 on Friday. Ukraine could drop into it, too.
Nations League group winners Georgia and Greece are assured playoff spots in the third-tier bracket. Luxembourg will likely join them.
Associated Press reporter Llazar Semini in Tirana contributed to this report.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer