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Euro 2016 playoffs preview: Fight for next summer’s last 4 spots begins on Thursday

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Twenty teams are already qualified for the largest-ever European Championship in France next summer, and by Tuesday, that the final field will be set. Between now and then, four playoffs will be decided, with games every day starting on Thursday. Here are previews of each of the two-legged ties:

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Norway vs. Hungary

Perhaps the least glamorous matchup of the four, neither Norway nor Hungary have any real European Championship experience. Combined, the two nations have two appearances in the last 50 years.

Hungary was in terrific position to automatically qualify for the tournament as the best second-place team in Group F. Then a final day 4-3 loss to last-place Greece consigned them to the playoff.

Norway hasn’t lost a match to Hungary since 1981, and while most of Hungary’s team plays domestically, Norway have a roster that is increasingly plying its trade around Europe. On form, and on history, Norway appear a safe bet to reach France.

The Pick: Norway

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Republic of Ireland vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina

This promises to be a dramatic clash. Both Ireland and Bosnia come into this meeting on the back of terrific success, with the Irish beating Germany in Dublin and the Bosnians resurrecting a once doomed qualifying campaign with three straight wins under new manager Mehmed Bazdarevic.

Ireland may be very slight favorites, but they have all kinds of injury and suspension problems. Shane Long, Jon Walters, John O’Shea, Rob Elliott and others are either potentially or firmly scheduled to miss both games, leading Republic assistant Roy Keane to question whether clubs were standing in the way of their players taking part.

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, who has talked about extending his contract whether or not his team reaches France, will try to keep the game in Bosnia close and win the tie on Monday night in Dublin.

Bosnia, meanwhile, are feeling good. They can attack through and around Edin Dzeko and will want to force Ireland to break out of their strong defensive shell and try to get forward.

Whoever makes it to the tournament (Bosnia for the first time or the Republic for the second) will be a credit to the finals through their support and spirit.

The Pick: Ireland

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Sweden vs. Denmark

It doesn’t get intense much in Scandinavia, but Sweden against Denmark with a major prize on the line is the exception. The countries’ rivalry goes back over 100 years and was last major news when Denmark beat Sweden in a playoff to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

There’s plenty on the line in this game; namely, the chance to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic back in a major tournament after his team missed the 2014 World Cup. Aside from Zlatan, Sweden remains a slick team with plenty of skill managed since 2009 by Erik Hamren.

Hamren, the enthusiastic native boss who led Sweden to Euro 2012, has had a long reign on the Sweden job, but that reign has been nothing compared to the length Morten Olsen’s tenure as manager of Denmark. Olsen has been in charge since 2000, but he’s stepping down at the conclusion of Denmark’s Euro run.

This Denmark team is stout and has some good individual talent but has been inconsistent throughout the campaign.

The Pick: Sweden

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Ukraine vs. Slovenia

On paper, this appears to be the biggest mismatch of the round. Ukraine is a very talented team, while Slovenia remains one of Europe’s smaller soccer nations.

However, history is on Slovenia’s side. In 2000, the Slovenians qualified for their first major tournament and only European Championships to date by beating Ukraine in a playoff.

This time around, the task will be harder. After co-hosting in 2012, the Ukrainians are led through 20165 qualifying by talented attackers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka. But it’s defensively where Ukraine has earned most of its points in this campaign, only conceding four times in 10 games.

Slovenia, who have been better in attack than Ukraine in the qualifiers to date, will want to hit an away goal and take it from there. Of note: it was Slovenia who upset Russia in a playoff to reach South Africa in 2010.

The Pick: Ukraine

 

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