Sat, Nov 17, 2007 - Page 19 News List

EURO 2008: Fate of former World Cup winners is in the balance

AFP , PARIS

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon looks at the ball during a training session at the Coverciano facility near Florence, Italy, on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

With all due respect to the rest of European soccer's big guns, most eyes today could focus on the Euro 2008 fates of the only trio from the continent to have won the World Cup.

Israel's hosting of Russia and Italy's visit to Scotland will have implications for all four of those teams -- with a place at next summer's European Championships at stake for three of them.

But the results of those matches could also go a long way in deciding whether England, France and Italy get to travel to next summer's soccer extravaganza in Switzerland and Austria.

Russia, third in Group E, could leave Steve McClaren's under-achieving England deeper in the mire by becoming one of the few teams to beat Israel at home.

A victory in Tel Aviv would leave Russia one point ahead of England in Group E. As Russia's final group match is against lowly Andorra, most observers would see them as virtually qualified.

If Russia lose in Israel, England need just a draw or victory against Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday to secure their last-minute ticket.

Under-fire McClaren has been given support from most of his players this week, and insisted on Thursday: "I believe Israel or even Macedonia [against Croatia] will get a result on Saturday which leaves us needing a win to go through. That's what we are training for."

Scotland have not featured at a major championships since their first round exit from the 1998 World Cup, won by the hosts France.

But after stunning Raymond Domenech and `Les Bleus' twice in Group B, the final group fixture for Alex McLeish's men -- against world champions Italy at Hampden Park -- leaves them on the cusp of causing one of the biggest upsets of the year.

A Scotland win would see them through but a draw would leave McLeish still in with a chance of qualifying his men -- if Ukraine shock France next Wednesday.

Despite Italy's pedigree, the Scots' swagger is back and the coach believes they can stun the reigning world champions and thus leave 1998 world champions France with a major headache.

"The players are refreshingly confident and have great self belief in their abilities. They have a swagger and there's a cutting edge about them," McLeish said.

Italy need only a draw to ensure they qualify, before their final match at home to the Faroe Islands on Wednesday.

And Italy striker Luca Toni played down claims by France's outspoken manager Raymond Domenech that both teams would play for a draw.

"It would be better if Domenech concentrated on getting his own house in order. There's no way we're going to try and play for a draw so his words mean nothing to us," Toni said.

While Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany and reigning European champions Greece have already qualified, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden have yet to book their tickets.

Spain host an injury-hit Sweden, the Group F leaders, in Madrid looking for the win that would qualify them and make up for their 2-0 defeat in Solna and shock 3-2 defeat to Northern Ireland.

A draw between Northern Ireland and Denmark in another crucial Group F game would send both Spain and Sweden through regardless of the outcome of their respective last games next week.

Surprise Group A leaders Poland will secure qualification with victory over Belgium, although a slip-up by Leo Beenhakker's side could open the door to second placed Portugal, Serbia or Finland.

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