Europe turns attention to Euro 2004 qualifying this weekend

LONDON: The recent furore over the value of international friendlies will be quickly forgotten when Europe turns its attention to Euro 2004 qualifying on Saturday. 

Eighteen qualifiers are being played around the continent on Saturday – with another 18 next Wednesday – and when they are all over the nine qualifying groups will have a more established look about them midway through the campaign. 

Several big nations, like Italy, England, Croatia and Ireland, are already off the pace while others, like Wales, Latvia, Bulgaria and Switzerland are enjoying unaccustomed good starts. 

Italy, runners-up in 2000, are down in third place in Group Nine following a defeat by Wales and a draw with Serbia & Montenegro, managing just a 2-0 away win over Azerbaijan. 

They face an awkward home game against Finland on Saturday where another failure will leave them a huge task in securing top spot and automatic qualification. 

Wales are the unlikely pacesetters in the group as they seek to reach their first major Finals since the 1958 World Cup. 

Rejuvenated under the management of Mark Hughes, they have put together a record unbeaten run of nine games. That includes three successive wins in Group Nine and they will expect to make it four against Azerbaijan in front of their own fans in Cardiff. 

England handed the Group Seven initiative to Turkey with their home draw against Macedonia, though they should return to winning ways when they visit Liechtenstein. 

Turkey top the group on maximum nine points and will have their feet up on Saturday ahead of next week's showdown trip to England. 

Ireland's excellent qualifying form in recent years has deserted them this season, with defeats against Russia and Switzerland leaving them in fourth place in Group 10 without a point.  

New boss Brian Kerr will get his first taste of competitive action away to Georgia on Saturday. 

Group leaders Switzerland are not in action so Russia have the chance to go top if they chalk up their third successive win, away to Albania. 

The 1998 World Cup semi-finals must seem a very distant memory for Croatia fans. 

Their team have failed to even qualify for the two major championship Finals since then and are already struggling for 2004. 

A goalless home draw with Estonia was followed by a 2-0 defeat in Bulgaria to leave the Croats fourth in Group Eight on one point. 

They face another tough game at home to Belgium, who have won both their games, with Bulgaria, top on nine, not in action until Wednesday. 

European champions France have won their first three Euro qualifiers, scoring 11 goals in the process. 

They will expect to continue both trends at home to Malta on Saturday, while Cyprus and Israel meet in Limassol in a game that could go a long way to determining who gets second spot. 

Spain, as ever, top Group Six but face probably the toughest game of their campaign on Saturday when they visit second-placed Ukraine. 

The Spaniards have beaten Greece and Northern Ireland to reach six points while Ukraine have five after beating the Greeks and drawing against Northern Ireland and Armenia. 

Germany head Group Five, also with maximum points from two games, but they have not been impressive. 

Scotland and Iceland, second and third in the group, meet in Glasgow. Scotland won the corresponding away fixture 2-0 last October. 

Holland and the Czech Republic, both with two wins from two games, go head-to-head for control of Group Three in possibly the most attractive tie of the weekend. 

Latvia are the unlikely early leaders of what looks a wide open Group Four but they do not play again until April 30. 

Poland, third on three points from two games, and Hungary, second on four from two, meet on Saturday. 

Group Two is another that is impossible to predict, with Norway, Romania and Denmark all capable of winning it. 

Norway will have to wait until they play Luxembourg on Wednesday to add to their tally of seven points but by then Romania or the Danes could have grabbed the advantage.  

They meet in Bucharest on Saturday. – Reuters 

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