Football: Back to business for Italy and a new-look Germany as World Cup qualifying resumes

Andy SCOTT, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 31 2021 10:11 AM

Italy's defender Leonardo Bonucci celebrates with the European Championship trophy after Italy won the UEFA EURO 2020 final football match between Italy and England at the Wembley Stadium in London on July 11, 2021. Catherine Ivill, AFP
Italy's defender Leonardo Bonucci celebrates with the European Championship trophy after Italy won the UEFA EURO 2020 final football match between Italy and England at the Wembley Stadium in London on July 11, 2021. Catherine Ivill, AFP

PARIS, France -- Across Europe it is time for people to go back to work at the end of the summer holidays, and for Italy it is back to business too, less than eight weeks after their Euro 2020 triumph at Wembley.

Fifty-three days on from the joy of beating England on penalties on a feverish night in London, the Azzurri will take the acclaim of their own supporters when they play Bulgaria in Florence in a World Cup qualifier.

Roberto Mancini's team cannot afford to rest on their laurels because until they have secured qualification for the finals in Qatar, they will not have completely erased the memory of their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Italy are unbeaten in 34 games -- including winning their first three qualifiers for Qatar back in March – and now they face three more matches in eight days with a trip to Switzerland and a home meeting with Lithuania also on the agenda.

"I would like the boys to pick up where they left off," said Mancini this week. "As a national team we can still improve between now and the World Cup, but first we have to qualify."

As Italy know well, the World Cup is a different ball game to the Euro, and not just because the next one takes place in November and December, 2022.

Only the winners of the 10 qualifying groups are certain to qualify, with the remaining three places up for grabs in play-offs next March.

Italy's game on Sunday in Basel against Switzerland, their biggest rivals in Group C, will therefore be crucial.

At the moment the biggest European names with work to do are the Netherlands and Germany, two powerhouses who head into the autumn with new coaches.

Hansi Flick is the new man in charge of Germany after 15 years under Joachim Loew.

For a long time Flick was Loew's assistant and, after winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich, he is the man tasked with restoring pride to a national team that went out of Euro 2020 in the last 16.

"I'm looking forward to working with him," said Bayern and Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. "I have big goals. I want to be a world champion."

Germany's final qualifier under Loew in March ended in a shock 2-1 home defeat to North Macedonia, their first loss in World Cup qualifying in 20 years leaving them third in Group J.

Flick's start looks gentle though, with Germany playing Liechtenstein, Armenia and Iceland.

- Van Gaal returns -

The Netherlands, who also failed to qualify for the last World Cup, sacked Frank de Boer after going out of Euro 2020 in the last 16 and have reappointed Louis van Gaal.

The man who led the Oranje to the 2014 World Cup semi-finals takes over a team currently trailing a point behind Group G leaders Turkey.

It could be a challenging start to the 70-year-old Van Gaal's third stint as national coach as the Netherlands play Erling Haaland's Norway in Oslo before hosting Montenegro and Turkey.

For England it is all about putting the pain of their Euro final defeat behind them as they face potential pitfalls away in Hungary and Poland, either side of a home meeting with minnows Andorra.

"There is no doubt that individually these players are going to improve and continue to improve," England manager Gareth Southgate said after naming a squad that has changed little from the young group that took part in Euro 2020.

Ater completing his transfer back to Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo has the chance to become the all-time top international goal-scorer when Portugal play Ireland.

Ronaldo equalled the Iranian Ali Daei's record of 109 goals for his country during the European Championship.

Following a disappointing Euro 2020, reigning world champions France get back to business in a triple-header including a testing visit to Ukraine.

European teams have been spared the disputes over the release of players by clubs that have threatened to mar upcoming matches in Africa and South America.

Meanwhile VAR will now be used in all European qualifiers after its implementation had initially been postponed.

© Agence France-Presse