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Euro 2024: Italy opens title defense against Albania in Group B

DORTMUND, Germany (AP) — Italy begins the defense of its European Championship title against Albania on Saturday in their first Group B match. The other teams in the group are Spain and Croatia. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. local (1900 GMT) in Dortmund. Here’s what to know about the match:

Match facts

— Italy is back at a major tournament after failing to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That was a second straight World Cup that the Azzurri missed, though they won Euro 2020 in between.

— Italy first played at Borussia Dortmund's stadium in 2006 — and it was a classic game in the World Cup. A semifinal match against Germany went to extra time at 0-0 before goals by Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero sealed a 2-0 win.

— Albania is playing in the Euros for the second time. The first occasion was in 2016 and the team failed to get out of its group.

Team news

— Attacking midfielder Davide Frattesi should be available for Italy after returning to training following a minor groin injury. Nicolò Barella and Nicolò Fagioli have both been training separately this week as they recover from muscle issues. Barella is a sure starter if fit, and coach Luciano Spalletti said Friday the midfielder should be ready.

— After finishing the season well with Europa League champion Atalanta, Gianluca Scamacca seems to have won the tussle with Mateo Retegui — born in Argentina but eligible to play for Italy through his maternal grandmother — to be Italy's starting striker. Still to be determined is whether Spalletti goes with a four-man defense or three at the back with wing backs. It'll likely be the latter, with Italy having somewhat of a defensive crisis following the withdrawals of Giorgio Scalvini and Francesco Acerbi because of injuries.

— Albania coach Sylvinho, the former Barcelona, Arsenal and Brazil left back who was sworn in as an Albanian citizen last month, has no reported injuries to worry about ahead of the match. Armando Broja is expected to start up front despite barely featuring for Fulham in a loan spell from Chelsea in the second half of the season.

By the numbers

— Italy is seeking a third European Championship title — after winning the 1968 and 2020 tournaments. The Italians were also runners-up in 2000 and 2012.

— Italy has won all four of its meetings with Albania. All of them have been played since 2014.

— Albania conceded eight goals on its last appearance at Dortmund's stadium. That was in 1981, when the national team lost 8-0 to West Germany.

— Ten members of Albania's squad play in one of Italy's top two leagues.

What they’re saying

“Perhaps this is a slightly younger group, with fewer years on the pitch. But this is a strong group with an equally strong coach." - Italy midfielder Bryan Cristante, comparing Spalletti's current squad with the Euro 2020 winners led by Roberto Mancini.

“It's definitely the biggest banana skin ... absolutely we cannot play at 70-80% if we want to win.” — Italy captain Gianluigi Donnarumma on Albania.

"If they win, I will not speak to Frattesi for days. And if we win, I think he will not speak to me!” – Albania midfielder Kristjan Asllani, who plays at Inter Milan alongside Frattesi.

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AP Euro 2024: https://apnews.com/hub/euro-2024

Steve Douglas, The Associated Press