LONDON: Italy are rolling out the big guns for their Euro 2004 qualifier against Finland in Helsinki next week, a match they must win to keep a check on the surprise progress of Wales.
The 2000 finalists are five points adrift of the Welsh who are not involved in the 37 qualifying matches spread over two days on Saturday and next Wednesday and will be keen to rein in the upstart Group Nine leaders.
Holland and the Czech Republic, neck and neck in their group, Germany, Spain and England are other major sides keen to tighten their grip on top place and a direct route to the European Championship Finals in Portugal next year.
Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni waited patiently while some of his leading players from AC Milan and Juventus rested after their European Cup final exertions and fielded a number of reserves in Tuesday's 2-0 warm-up win over Northern Ireland.
But he will be glad to have the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Del Piero back in the fold in Helsinki on Wednesday as Italy also look to keep the Finns and Serbia and Montenegro at bay.
Wales lead the group with a maximum 12 points followed by Italy on seven, the Serbs with five and Finland who host the former Yugoslavia on Saturday on three.
Serbia and Montenegro, not too impressive in their 2-1 loss to England in Tuesday's warm-up in Leicester, are away to bottom team Azerbaijan on Wednesday.
The Dutch will be without midfield motor Edgar Davids, who was injured playing for Juventus in last week's European Cup final defeat, when they visit Belarus on Saturday.
A slip by Holland will be leapt on eagerly by the Czechs, who are a single goal better off than the Dutch in the Group Three standings, when they entertain Moldova on Wednesday.
Germany are also equal on points with two other teams, Scotland and Lithuania, in Group Five but they have games in hand over both their rivals and should pick up all three points when they visit Glasgow on Saturday.
Pulling the strings for the 2002 World Cup runners-up will be Michael Ballack in his first match for his country this year. He recovered from injury to inspire Bayern Munich to victory in the German Cup final, clinching the double, last month.
Trying to spoil their plans is compatriot and former coach Berti Vogts, praying that his Scots pull off a surprise that looks distinctly unlikely judging by their form in a 1-1 draw at home to New Zealand last week.
England are without suspended captain David Beckham for their Group Seven match at home to Slovakia on Wednesday, which they must win to ensure they do not lose the ground gained on Turkey by beating the World Cup semi-finalists in April.
Teenage striker Wayne Rooney should partner Michael Owen in attack after recovering from injury but central defender Rio Ferdinand, who needs surgery on his left knee, is out.
Turkey are a point behind England and can go at least two points clear of them if they win away to the Slovaks on Saturday and at home to Macedonia on Wednesday.
Worried by a recent dip in form, the Turks have recalled midfielder Sergen Yalcin, who missed last year's World Cup Finals through injury.
Turkey's World Cup strikers Ilhan Mansiz and Hasan Sas are both out with injuries.
Spain have lost Real Madrid forward Guti to a training injury but will be confident they can retain their four-point lead in Group Six with victories at home to Greece on Saturday and away to Northern Ireland on Wednesday.
Greece and Ukraine, who are equal on points and meet in Athens on Wednesday, will both be looking to pounce on any Spanish slip-ups.
Defending champions France, runaway leaders in Group One, are not involved in this spate of qualifiers, returning to action at home to Cyprus in September. Reuters