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Biggest storylines going into all-or-nothing Euro 2024 playoffs

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GENEVA (AP) — Two national soccer teams whose countries are involved in wars. A two-time FIFA world player of the year aiming for possibly his last tournament. A team that went 31 years failing to win a European Championship qualifying game.

The plotlines are vivid for those hoping to earn one of three places in the 24-team lineup at Euro 2024 that are being decided over the next week in qualifying playoffs.

Twelve nations set out on Thursday in four-team knockout brackets. They must advance through two single-leg games in five days to be in Germany for the June 14-July 14 tournament.

Israel and Ukraine could meet next Tuesday in what would be a decisive game of a bracket where neither can play at home because of military conflicts.

Israel has picked Hungary — its adopted soccer home for security reasons since the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 — to face Iceland on Thursday. The winner in Budapest will travel to face Ukraine or Bosnia-Herzegovina next Tuesday.

If Ukraine wins on Thursday in Zenica — the Bosnian city where its November 2021 win in a World Cup qualifier was the team's last game before the Russian invasion — it will host the bracket final in Wroclaw, Poland.

Poland is in a separate playoffs bracket and captain Robert Lewandowski, voted FIFA player of the year in 2020 and '21, will lead his team on Thursday in Warsaw heavily favored to beat Estonia.

If Poland wins, it will be away next Tuesday at Wales or Finland, who meet on Thursday in Cardiff.

The third bracket involves low-ranked teams trying to follow North Macedonia's underdog path to Euro 2020.

Luxembourg is closer than ever to a major tournament after being overmatched for much of the European Championship's 66-year history.

If Luxembourg can get past Georgia in Tbilisi on Thursday, it will host Euro 2004 champion Greece or Kazakhstan, who meet in Athens.

Playoffs format

The 21 teams already in the Euro 2024 lineup are Germany plus the winner and runner-up in each of 10 traditional qualifying groups played last year. UEFA banned Russia from the competition.

Entry in the playoffs is based not on those group standings, but results in the Nations League groups played in 2022.

Poland and Wales played in the Nations League top tier and their opponents Estonia and Finland, respectively, were upgraded from lower tiers. Estonia was the highest ranked of the Nations League fourth-tier teams.

League A bracket

At age 35, and with 82 goals in 146 games for Poland, Robert Lewandowski might have just one finals tournament left in a stellar career.

The winner of this bracket goes into a Euro 2024 group with the Netherlands, Austria and a final game against France in Dortmund — where Lewandowski starred from 2010-14.

Poland is unbeaten at home in 20 Euros qualifying games since 2006, though Estonia won when they last met 12 years ago. That game was decided by a 90th-minute goal by Konstantin Vassiljev. Now 39, Vassiljev can tie the national record of 157 appearances, held by Martin Reim, if he plays in Warsaw.

Wales is proven in playoffs after qualifying for the 2022 World Cup that way, beating Austria and Ukraine. Just like two years ago, the draw has given Wales only home games.

League B bracket

Israel has never played at a European Championship. The national team has tried qualifying since joining UEFA 30 years ago because of security and diplomatic issues in Asian soccer.

Though some Asian soccer federations want Israel sanctioned in the sport because of the military conflict in Gaza, a key difference with Russia's exclusion is that no UEFA member has refused to play games against Israeli teams.

Israel first faces Iceland, whose debut at Euro 2016 was a feelgood story as it eliminated England to reach the quarterfinals.

Ukraine coach Serhiy Rebrov's team returns to Bosnia, where it won 2-0 in November 2021. One of those goals in Zenica was scored by Artem Dovbyk. He is having a standout debut season in Spain with Girona, which was the surprise La Liga leader for several weeks.

Bosnia-Herzegovina hopes to join Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia as the fourth qualifier from the former Yugoslavia at Euro 2024.

"It's something almost impossible to imagine before this," Bosnia coach Savo Milosevic, the former Serbia striker, said at the playoffs draw in November.

Bosnia had three different coaches in a troubled qualifying group and still relies on veterans Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic.

The bracket winner will go into a Euro 2024 group with Romania, Slovakia and Belgium.

League C bracket

Georgia will first host Luxembourg in the intimidating national stadium in Tbilisi without talismanic star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

The Napoli winger is suspended for getting three yellow cards in the qualifying group, including in the last two games against Scotland and Spain, which were irrelevant to entering the playoffs.

Luxembourg also misses a key attacker, Daniel Sinani, who got a red card in the last qualifying group game. In that group, Luxembourg won more games (five) than in its previous six Euros qualifying programs combined.

A Greece team coached by Uruguayan great Gus Poyet would be rewarded at Euro 2024 with playing neighbor Turkey. Portugal and the Czech Republic also are in the group.


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