Sat, Jun 12, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Portugal, Greece open Euro 2004; Spain faces Russians

REUTERS , PORTO

Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup, begins another bid to make history when his Portugal team play Greece in the opening match of Euro 2004 today.

Since the European Championship began in 1960, no country has lifted the Henri Delauney trophy managed by an overseas coach, which is exactly what Greece are also attempting to do, though German Otto Rehhagel's ambitions are, in reality, far more modest.

For millions of Portuguese, this represents the best chance they have had of winning a major tournament. Most Greeks will be happy if their team avoids humiliation and scores some goals, while winning a match would be a bonus.

The expectation on the hosts to start their Group A campaign with victory is enormous, but Scolari, who was under even greater pressure to bring the World Cup back to Brazil in 2002, is used to the demands of an expectant public.

He has tried to keep things in perspective recently and at least his chances of winning the opening match have been boosted by a clean bill of health for the squad.

Rui Costa is expected to start as playmaker in preference to Brazilian-born Deco, who might have to be content with a place on the substitutes' bench at the Estadio do Dragao, home of his European Cup-winning club side Porto.

Scolari has been credited with uniting the team behind the cause and led by example this week when he responded to speculation he had agreed to move to Benfica after the tournament by saying he would go anywhere except the club he was reported to be joining.

Rehhagel also hopes to have a full-strength squad despite recent injury problems.

With leading striker Demis Nikolaidis on the road to recovery and towering defender Traianos Dellas eager to play despite a back injury, Rehhagel is expected to trust his usual 4-4-2 lineup.

With two strong men in central defense, Dellas and Nikos Dabizas, and fullbacks who enjoy the occasional run down the pitch, Rehhagel will hopes to set the game's tempo.

Playmaker Vassilis Tsartas on the left and Stelios Giannakopoulos on the right will be aiming to crack open the Portuguese defense and create opportunities for fast strikers Nikolaidis and Angelos Haristeas.

Spain vs Russia

Spain need victory from their Euro 2004 debut against Russia in Group A today to avoid unwanted complications and make a convincing case for a first major title for 40 years.

Spain's only moment of glory came when they beat the Soviet Union to win the European Championship in 1964.

Since the group stage was introduced at the finals in 1980, they have only once managed to win their opening game, against Denmark in 1988, and the players are anxious to shrug off their reputation as slow starters.

"The first game is always the most difficult," fullback Carles Puyol said from the team's base in northern Portugal, close to the Spanish border. "We need to do well this time."

Spain certainly cannot afford a repeat of Euro 2000, when they lost their opening game against Norway and were lucky to sneak through with wins over Slovenia and Yugoslavia.

After taking on Russia, Spain face tricky games against Greece, who beat them during qualifying for the tournament, and Portugal.

The last thing the players want is to go into the Portuguese game in Lisbon with a place in the quarterfinals still in doubt.

"That would be very difficult," in-form Spanish striker Fernando Morientes warned.

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