PARIS - Reigning champions Italy secured their ticket for Euro 2024 on Monday after holding on for a nervy goalless draw against Ukraine in their final qualifier, while the Czech Republic and Slovenia also clinched places at next year's finals.
Italy only needed the draw in a game played in Leverkusen, Germany, in order to qualify but a defeat against their direct rivals in Group C would have left their fate to be decided in play-offs next March.
That was a scenario they desperately wanted to avoid following the trauma of failing to qualify for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups after losing in play-offs, either side of winning the last European Championship in 2021.
The high stakes made it a tense occasion and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma had to produce a firm hand low down to keep out an early Georgiy Sudakov strike.
However, Luciano Spalletti's side threatened at the other end with Ukraine 'keeper Anatoliy Trubin saving from Nicolo Barella and racing out to deny Davide Frattesi before the half-hour mark.
Donnarumma blocked a Mykhailo Mudryk attempt in the 65th minute and there was a flashpoint in stoppage time when the Ukraine winger went down in the Italy box under a Bryan Cristante challenge, but no penalty was given.
The two nations finish level on 14 points behind England in Group C, but Italy have the better head-to-head record having won 2-1 in Milan in September.
"We are delighted. After all the difficulties we have had, we will be in Germany and we will be going there as reigning champions and going there to win," Donnarumma told broadcaster Rai 1.
Ukraine must therefore negotiate the play-offs if they are to return to Germany for the tournament next June.
Asked about the late penalty call, Ukraine coach Serhiy Rebrov told the post-match press conference: "From my point of view that was a penalty, but again I was not there and it's only about my emotions."
- England held in North Macedonia -
England had already qualified before their trip to Skopje to play North Macedonia, when they needed a second-half own goal to earn a 1-1 draw and finish their campaign undefeated.
Enis Bardhi opened the scoring for North Macedonia four minutes before half-time, following up to net after his penalty was saved by Jordan Pickford.
The spot-kick was given after a VAR check showed that Manchester City's Rico Lewis, on his debut, had caught Bojan Miovski in the area.
England drew level just before the hour mark, and moments after Harry Kane was sent on from the bench, as Jani Atanasov diverted a Phil Foden corner into his own net.
The Czech Republic only needed a draw at home to Moldova in Olomouc to secure their place at an eighth consecutive Euro finals, and the outcome was never in doubt as they eased to a 3-0 victory.
David Doudera swept in the opener and Moldova had Vladislav Baboglo sent off early in the second half before late goals by Tomas Chory and captain Tomas Soucek secured victory.
- Czech coach quits -
They finish second in Group E behind Albania -- who drew 0-0 with the Faroe Islands on Monday -- but their evening was overshadowed by coach Jaroslav Silhavy announcing his resignation immediately after the game.
"Even though we are happy now, we had already decided before the game not to continue," the 62-year-old coach told Czech television.
His departure comes after three players, including West Ham United defender Vladimir Coufal, were sent home from the squad for having spent Saturday night at a nightclub.
Slovenia will appear at the Euro for the first time since 2000 after their 2-1 win at home to Kazakhstan in Ljubljana clinched second place behind Denmark in Group H.
Benjamin Verbic netted Slovenia's late winner after Ramazan Orazov had netted for Kazakhstan to cancel out Benjamin Sesko's penalty opener.
Kazakhstan would have qualified with a win but will instead now go into the play-offs as their hopes of appearing at first major tournament remain alive.
Denmark lost 2-0 in Northern Ireland, with Isaac Price and Dion Charles scoring, while Finland -- who will be in the play-offs -- won 2-1 away to minnows San Marino.