World champions Germany headline a host of sides chasing places in the Euro 2016 knockout phase on Tuesday while title-holders Spain are out to avoid a heavyweight clash with Italy.
Joachim Loew’s team will progress to the last 16 with a draw against Northern Ireland in Paris, and Poland can join their neighbours by avoiding defeat to already eliminated Ukraine in Marseille.
Spain, seeking a third straight title, are assured of reaching the next round, but Vicente Del Bosque’s side are keen to clinch top spot in Group D when they face second-place Croatia in Bordeaux.
Czech Republic could poach the other automatic qualifying berth should they beat Turkey and Croatia lose. But coming second, instead of third, in that group could prove a poisoned chalice.
Germany laboured to a 0-0 draw with Poland last Wednesday, after which Loew lambasted a toothless display, but they remain in pole position in Group C.
Mats Hummels, who returned after missing Germany’s opening 2-0 win over Ukraine through injury, said the Germans must be wary of Northern Ireland.
“We know they could get the confidence to beat us if we let them.
“We have to try to be the better team from the beginning, so they don’t start believing they can win it,” he said.
Northern Ireland, who beat Ukraine 2-0 in their second game, are guaranteed to finish no worse than third. But a victory could propel Michael O’Neill’s side to the top if Poland slip up against Ukraine.
“I don’t think there’s any tension. I think this is a special moment,” said O’Neill.
“We have to obviously try and get a result and get to the next phase of the tournament. It’s as simple as that.”
A point for Poland would secure their place in the last 16, but all three teams remain in the running to finish first.
Roads to the final
Spain strolled into the second round with victories over Czech Republic and Turkey. But they will face a daunting challenge should they lose to Croatia in their final game.
With Italy guaranteed to finish top of Group E, whoever finishes second in Group D will likely have to get past the Euro 2012 finalists and then hosts France to reach the semi-finals.
Germany could then stand in the way of a place in the July 10 final, but midfielder David Silva is confident Spain will steer clear of that perilous path.
“At this stage, it is normal that they make you favourites. We have won the last two European Championships and also for the games in the past few days,” he said.
“We have had a very good start. We need to win or draw to stay top of the group. We need to maintain our level and if it remains so high, we can win the tournament.”
Croatia could be without midfielder Luka Modric after the Real Madrid star hobbled off in Friday’s 2-2 draw with Czech Republic. Key striker Mario Mandzukic is also an injury doubt.
Hardcore supporters of Croatian club Hajduk split, suspected of throwing flares that temporarily halted play against the Czechs, have threatened to disrupt Tuesday’s game with Spain.
Uefa fined the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) 100,000 euros ($113,000) on Monday after fans threw more than 10 flares onto the pitch at the end of the Saint-Etienne match.
Czech Republic and Turkey, who have yet to register a goal or point, both must win to maintain hopes of progressing.
However, veteran Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky has been ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a hamstring problem.