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Slovakia, Albania headed to Euro 2016

In a spread-out final week of qualifying, Slovakia and Albania have clinched a berth at Euro 2016. They are among five teams that will feature at the finals for the first time.

Slovakia punched their tickets for next summer's tournament in France with a 4-2 victory over Luxembourg on Monday evening. With the three points, the Slovakians secured second place in Group C of qualifying, and an automatic spot at Euro 2016.

Since the demise of Czechoslovakia in 1993, when Bratislava and Prague went their separate ways, Slovakia, as an independent country, has never appeared at a major soccer tournament.

The Slovaks, known internationally until now more for their prowess on the hockey rink than the football pitch, were delighted but also a little relieved to have clinched qualification after squandering their chance to do so against Belarus on Friday.

"I never doubted (qualification) for a second," coach Jan Kozak told Slovak news website SME.sk afterwards.

"This team has character, quality, and I was convinced we could do it ... To advance to the European Championships is something fantastic."

Triumphant Albania welcomed home

Also on Monday, the Albanian national team received a hero's welcome when they arrived in Tirana after flying home from Yerevan, where their 3-0 victory over Armenia on Sunday secured second spot in Group I - marking the first time the Balkan nation has qualified for the Euros.

"Last night, an impossible dream ended. It became reality," Prime Minister Edi Rama said, after personally greeting the players and coaching staff as they got off the plane at Tirana's Mother Theresa Airport.

"Like never before, you made Albania and Albanians everywhere feel the dream of going to the finals of a European Championship."

The Netherlands on the brink

Slovakia and Albania are among five teams, including Wales, Northern Ireland Iceland that will be making their first appearances at next year's tournament in France, which will feature a total of 24 teams instead of the 16 at previous European championships.

In all, 18 teams have clinched qualification, with two automatic berths up for grabs in Tuesday's matches. Among the teams hoping to take their last chance to stay alive by qualifying for a playoff spot are the Netherlands.

pfd/apc (dpa, SID, AFP, Reuters)

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