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Europe's elite kick off battle for supremacy

Updated: 2023-03-23 09:11
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With plenty of new recruits on board, challengers eye Italy's crown

PARIS — Three months on from Argentina's dramatic World Cup final victory over France, international soccer returns this week as Euro 2024 qualifying gets underway.

Germany, as host, is exempt from the qualifying process but the rest of Europe's heavyweights begin the process this week.

AFP Sport picks out some of the storylines to follow.

Italy coach Roberto Mancini during the press conference before the UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifier at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Naples, Italy March 22, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

Mancini's mission

Italy was the highest-profile nation to miss out on the World Cup in Qatar. It now begins its defense of the European Championship trophy with a mouth-watering showdown against England in a repeat of the Euro 2020 final which the Azzurri won on penalties at Wembley.

Roberto Mancini remains in charge despite the failed World Cup qualifying campaign, but there are some new faces in his squad.

One man to look out for will be Mateo Retegui, a 23-year-old Argentina-born forward who was the top scorer in the Argentinian league with Tigre last year.

"Years ago they used to say that to play for the national team you needed to be born in Italy. But the world has changed and all national teams have players who are naturalized or come from other nations," Mancini said.

The Azzurri will be expected to advance from qualifying Group C along with England given the top two teams in each section go through. However, Ukraine may cause those sides some problems — it plays England away on Sunday.

File photo of Kylian Mbappe. [Photo/Agencies]

Captain Mbappe

France coach Didier Deschamps needed a new captain after long-serving skipper Hugo Lloris retired following the World Cup.

He has opted to give the armband to Kylian Mbappe, deciding that the superstar Paris Saint-Germain forward is ready for the role at the age of 24.

"Kylian ticked all the boxes to have that extra responsibility," said Deschamps of the player who scored a breathtaking hat-trick in the World Cup final.

With centerback Raphael Varane also standing down, there is a new look to France as Les Bleus prepare to begin qualifying at home to the Netherlands on Friday before a trip to the Republic of Ireland.

Mike Maignan of AC Milan will be the new first-choice goalkeeper, while Nice midfielder Khephren Thuram received a first call-up — the son of Lilian Thuram joins his elder brother Marcus in the squad.

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