Italy, England face critical matches

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> Italy and England face critical matches in Euro 2004 qualifying on Saturday.

Updated: February 25, 2007 09:48 IST
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European powers France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands are where you'd expect them to be in Euro 2004 qualifying - leading their groups. Italy and England? The Italians are mired deep in Group 9 - five points behind surprising Wales - going into Saturday's critical home game against Finland in Palermo, Sicily. The English are in a similar fix in Group 7, five points behind Turkey. They have a breather on Saturday against Liechtenstein but face a crucial showdown on Wednesday against the Turks in Sunderland. After a five-month break, 18 matches are set for Saturday and 17 on Wednesday, as qualifying for next year's tournament in Portugal reaches the midway stage. Coming off a disappointing World Cup, Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni is under growing pressure to produce results. Anything less than a victory could cost him his job following a 2-1 loss at Wales and a 1-1 draw against Serbia-Montenegro. Italy's only win was 2-0 at Azerbaijan. "The national team coach is like any coach," said Trapattoni, whose friend and Juventus coach Marcello Lippi is interested in the job. "One week you're crucified, the next you're in paradise". "I know he (Lippi) is interested in the national team but the post is a hot one. But the federation is right to be looking at alternatives". Trapattoni has playmaker Francesco Totti back for the first time since he was sent off in a World Cup round-of-16 loss to South Korea. Totti is expected to team up front with Christian Vieri. Trapattoni has used injuries to explain his team's problems. But he has no injury excuses this time. "The team has grown," he said. "If it were in this condition at the beginning we would be leading the group right now". Finland could be boosted by the return of injured captain Jari Litmanen, who has been out for three months. Like Italy, World Cup quarterfinalist England could be in trouble. Sven-Goran Eriksson's team has only four points from two games in Group 7 - including a humiliating 2-2 draw against Macedonia - and should have no problem on Saturday at tiny Liechtenstein. The capital Vaduz is expected to host a crowd of about 3,000 - about one-tenth of the principality's population. Liechtenstein lost its last match 5-0 to Turkey. England faces a major test on Wednesday against Turkey in Sunderland. "Two wins - nothing else is good enough," England defender Rio Ferdinand said. Captain David Beckham added: "We can't afford to draw any more games or have any more slip-ups." Veteran goalkeeper David Seaman is out injured, with David James expected to get his first start in an official game after 11 appearances in friendlies. Central defender Sol Campbell will miss the Liechtenstein game, but could return for Turkey. Eight teams put perfect records on the line in the next few days: defending champion France (Group 1), the Netherlands and the Czech Republic (Group 3), Germany (Group 5), Spain (Group 6), Turkey (Group 7) Bulgaria (Group 8) and Wales (Group 9). Something will have to give when the Czechs visit the Dutch on Saturday in Rotterdam. Both have won their first two qualifiers. The Dutch have a few nagging injuries but are near full strength with more depth up front than almost any other team in Europe. Defender Ronald de Boer is expected to make his record 100th appearance for the national side. The Czechs will use the same defensive side they used in a 2-0 friendly win last month over France. The match will be the first between the two since the Dutch won 1-0 in Euro 2000 on a late penalty by De Boer. "The Netherlands is among the top three teams on the continent, but we're not scared of anyone," said Liverpool forward Milan Baros. "We beat the French, who are packed with top-class players". Defending champion France should have no problem Saturday against tiny Malta in Lens. The bigger test comes on Wednesday against second-place Israel in Palermo. Zinedine Zidane has been named captain for both games replacing Marcel Desailly, who was not picked for the squad. "When he speaks, everyone listens," coach Jacques Santini said. France's only major injury worry is midfielder Robert Pires (ankle). World Cup runner-up Germany puts the emphasis on youth Saturday at home against Lithuania in Nuernberg. Striker Michael Ballack has an injured ankle and is the only major loss. The youthful side will include 21-year-old midfielder Tobias Rau, 23-year-old defender Arne Friedrich, 23-year-old midfielder Paul Freier and 21-year-old forward Kevin Kuranyi. Kuranyi of VfB Stuttgart has been the Bundesliga's most prolific scorer. Coach Rudi Voeller didn't rule out a start for Kuranyi. "Let's see what happens this week," he said. "Kevin has kept developing himself in the past six months". Spain has won its first two qualifiers but has a difficult match on Saturday at group No. 2 Ukraine in Kiev, followed by an easier home match on Wednesday vs. Armenia. (AP)

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