- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

It’s proving to be a long hangover for Germany after winning the World Cup in Brazil eight months ago.

Injuries, retirements, and players being out of form are all taking their toll on Joachim Loew’s side, which is laboring through its European Championship group as qualifying reaches its halfway point this week.

The top-ranked Germans have looked far from the world’s best team in a loss to Poland, a home draw with Ireland, and uninspiring wins over Scotland and tiny Gibraltar in qualifying. Throw in a friendly loss to Argentina, and the jaw-dropping 7-1 victory over Brazil in the World Cup semifinals seems a long way away now.

Germany is three points behind Group D leader Poland and tied on points with Scotland and Ireland heading into Sunday’s away match against Georgia. It is shaping up to be one of the most competitive of the nine groups in the European zone, although Germany isn’t the only leading team to be struggling.

The Netherlands, a semifinalist at the World Cup, is third in Group A.

Belgium, a quarterfinalist in Brazil, is fourth in Group B.

Greece, the 2004 European champion and a qualifier for the last four major international tournaments, is last in Group F on one point from four matches, and has already fired its coach Claudio Ranieri.

But they shouldn’t be worried just yet.

Euro 2016 in France will be the largest ever gathering for a European Championship, with the top two teams in each group qualifying automatically along with the best third-place finisher.

Here are some things to know about the fifth round of matches in European qualifying from Friday to Sunday:

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NO NEWCOMERS: Loew hasn’t been afraid to give youth a chance during his time as Germany coach - he has handed 74 players their debuts in 118 games since he took over after the 2006 World Cup.

However, the expected breakthrough of young talent among the current generation has yet to fully materialize at the top level, and there were no newcomers in the squad for Sunday’s qualifier in Georgia. Germany also plays Australia in a friendly on Wednesday.

They will be Germany’s first games since Loew extended his contract by another two years on March 13, taking him through to the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

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DESPERATE DUTCH: After losing to both the Czech Republic and Iceland early in qualifying, the Netherlands is taking the tough route to advancing from Group A.

It was the not the start Guus Hiddink expected in his second stint in charge of the national team, and he even threatened to quit if the Dutch lost to Latvia in their most recent qualifier.

His players responded with a resounding 6-0 victory that eased some pressure, and the veteran coach is not putting his job on the line ahead of Saturday’s home match against Turkey, which is two points behind the Dutch in fourth place.

Hiddink is missing all-time top-scorer Robin van Persie, star winger Arjen Robben, and center back Ron Vlaar to injuries for the game at the Amsterdam Arena.

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GROUP TOPPERS: When it comes to football, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have never had it so good since they became independent nations in 1993.

Both have made perfect starts to Euro qualifying, winning their first four matches to sit top of their groups. Never before have they both qualified for the same major tournament.

The Czechs have advanced to the last five European Championships and have been revitalized under new coach Pave Vrba, who took charge after the team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.

Czech Republic hosts Latvia on Saturday, while Slovakia should stay top of Group C - above Spain - by beating last-place Luxembourg on Friday. The Czechs and the Slovaks then meet, for the 10th time, in a friendly in Zilina on Tuesday.

England, in Group E, is the other team to have a maximum 12 points after four games.

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STRIKERS OUT: Spain will be without Diego Costa for its home match against Ukraine after the striker hurt his hamstring playing for Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday.

England could give Harry Kane his international debut in Friday’s home qualifier against Lithuania following the injury withdrawal of fellow striker Daniel Sturridge. The 21-year-old Kane has been a revelation for Tottenham this season, scoring 29 goals in all competitions.

Israel hosts Wales in a match between the top two teams in Group B.

In Group F, unbeaten leader Romania is at home to Faeroe Islands, and Sergio Markarian takes charge of his first match as Greece coach away to Hungary on Sunday.

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Associated Press writers Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Ciaran Fahey in Berlin and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.


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