PARIS: Against the gloomy backdrop of war in Iraq, football will creep back towards centre stage today for a raft of crucial Euro 2004 qualifiers.
England travel to Liechtenstein for a David versus Goliath contest, which secured UEFA's go-ahead after initial security concerns about potential terror attacks connected with the Iraqi crisis.
While such threats off the field linger, on the field it is banana skins which Sven-Goran Eriksson's side fear as they have already endured a storm of criticism following their miserable home draw against Macedonia in their last qualifier.
Group Seven rivals Turkey are setting the early pace with three wins in three games and England, having thrown those two points away against the Macedonians, are aware another slip-up against also-ran opponents would derail their campaign.
Eriksson is determined that his charges will not concede further unnecessary ground as they head for Vaduz along with some 2,000 England fans – only 900 of whom are officially expected to get tickets.
Liechtenstein, whose entire population of 33,000 would only half fill Old Trafford, have only ever won one match. But they did manage a draw of their own against Macedonia and England will not be counting their chickens even if livestock graze behind the 3,500-capacity Rheinpark Stadium.
Eriksson has plumped for an injection of youth by drafting 17-year-old Everton striker Wayne Rooney, who made his debut as the youngest ever England player at 17 and 111 days in last month's friendly loss to Australia.
Newcastle's 20-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jenas, who likewise won his first cap against the Aussies, is retained and could even keep out clubmate Kieron Dyer while Chelsea defender John Terry is a new face.
With Sol Campbell injured, Gareth Southgate of Middlesbrough is likely to come in and partner Rio Ferdinand at the back.
Elsewhere in England's group, Macedonia, boosted by their 2-2 draw away to England, take on Slovakia while the Turks have a free weekend.
France, like their English counterparts, face a side they should beat easily in the shape of Malta and Les Bleus have home advantage in the northern town of Lens.
Robert Pires is set to miss out with an ankle strain but Zinedine Zidane, skipper in the absence of Marcel Desailly, is over a leg strain.
The French have found Group One a cakewalk to date. They thrashed Slovenia 5-0 in their last competitive tie and, although they did lose a recent home friendly to the Czech Republic, they have already swamped the Maltese away.
Jacques Santini's side, the defending European champions, will therefore likely be in an enviable position of four wins from four starts when they head for Palermo to face Israel on Wednesday.
While England struggle to prove their pedigree under Eriksson, few people would have put money on Wales beating them to next summer's Finals in Portugal.
But Mark Hughes' Welsh dragons are on a roll after maximum points from their opening three games, including a home success over Italy.
A home win over Azerbaijan in Cardiff would leave Wales within touching distance of a place in the Finals of a major event for the first time since the 1958 World Cup.
Wales will have to await developments after today as Wednesday's trip to Serbia-Montenegro has been postponed to Aug 20 because of civil unrest there.
Italy, with just four points on the board from three matches, will seek to play catch-up with a win over Finland in Palermo.
Everything is to play for in Group Three with Holland, the Czech Republic and Austria all on six points – though the Austrians have played an extra game.
The Dutch, desperate to get to the Finals after missing out on the World Cup, will have a better idea of their chances after hosting Czech Republic.
Barcelona defender Frank de Boer is expected to become the first Dutch star to win 100 caps in the encounter, 13 years after making his debut against Italy.
The 33-year-old sees Euro 2004 as his final chance to lift a trophy with the 'Oranje' after several near misses, including the 1998 World Cup semi-final loss to Brazil on penalties.
Germany, finding their feet again after their run to the World Cup final ended a barren spell, take on Lithuania in Nuremberg looking to ensure they remain out of Scotland's reach, while the Scots host Iceland in another Group Five encounter.
Coached by German Berti Vogts, who lifted the 1996 European Championship with his homeland, Scotland go into the match on the back of a friendly loss to Ireland which prompted him to threaten ringing the changes.
Germany face Lithuania without the injured Michael Ballack, meaning greater midfield responsibility for Liverpool's Dietmar Hamann, who warned his teammates that these days even “the small fry can be good for a surprise”.
England know that better than most. – AFP