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Close competition for Italy
If Groups A and B are doing their bit to support neighbourly relations and Group D is being billed as the group of death, then Group C is undoubtedly the section which has got the bookmakers tearing their hair out.
Wednesday, 3 December 2003


The Italians may be many people's choice to win the group at a canter but their reputation as slow starters and inability to overcome disciplined sides - illustrated in their defeat by Croatia and draw with Mexico in the 2002 FIFA World Cup group stage - could scupper any plans the Azzurri have of a quarter-final appearance. 

Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni may be facing a pool full of qualifying group winners, but he was delighted to have avoided the likes of France and Portugal. Still the Nordic steel of Denmark and Sweden and sheer unpredictability of a young but talented Bulgaria side will test the Italians. 

"European football is very balanced at the moment and I believe ours is an even group," said Trapattoni. "The World Cup taught us that the teams with the fittest players usually win and I am convinced all the teams from our group could go through." 

Although Sweden's physical presence and Bulgaria's youthful exuberance will worry the Italian coach, the side he probably fears most are 1992 European champions Denmark. In the World Cup finals they ran rings around France and were impressive in qualifying for a place in Portugal. 

Denmark, who open their campaign against Italy on 14 June, will be hoping for a repeat of their memorable 3-2 win in Italy in UEFA EURO 2000 qualifying. Coach Morten Olsen, who like his fellow Group C bosses, acknowledged the draw with a slightly furrowed brow, recognising the dangers which Italy pose. 

"It's an open group," he said. "All four countries qualified as group winners but if you had to pick a favourite it would be Italy. However, it is the kind of group in which everyone could beat each other." 

Denmark, who know Sweden better than any other international side, will be slightly concerned by the fact that their neighbours have overcome them in consecutive friendlies. But the Danes, who also beat England in a recent friendly, are the masters of turning it on when it matters. 

Sweden co-coach Lars Lagerbäck admitted he was disappointed to have been grouped with Olsen's side. "I feel a bit sorry about playing our neighbours because we get on with them so well both on and off the pitch, but we must try and beat them," he said. 

The Swedes begin their campaign against Bulgaria in Lisbon on 14 June. Plamen Markov's Bulgarian side will be hoping to rediscover the kind of form they demonstrated to book a semi-final date with Italy in the 1994 World Cup - only this time they will look for a more positive result against the Azzurri. 

Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoitchkov believes his country can finally get their own back. "I think that Bulgaria have a good chance to qualify for the next phase," he said. "We have old scores to settle with all of those teams. After we lost the semi-final to Italy [a 2-1 defeat], Sweden beat us 4-0 in the third-place play-off. This is our great chance to have our revenge on them."
- Pete Sanderson




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