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  News: Countdown to EURO 2004


French favored
Hopes high for defending champs, who could face Italy again in final

Tuesday, 08 June 2004

Imagine Michel Platini in THIS French team.

Twenty years after Platini led France to its first major international triumph at Euro 1984, France is at the top of European soccer once more.

Defending champion from 2000 when it was also the World Cup holder, France is favored to become the first repeat winner of the European Championship.

Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, England and host Portugal also are contenders in the June 12-July 4 tournament, while three-time champion and World Cup runner up Germany may struggle to get through a group which also includes the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

But French coach Jacques Santini has a squad of imaginative and vastly experienced players who have become used to winning. No one will be surprised if they do it again.

Several are still around from World Cup 1998 and the Euro 2000 success in Rotterdam where France scored a last minute equalizer and then beat Italy on an extra time "golden goal."

Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires played major roles in Arsenal's achievement in becoming the first team in 115 years to win the English league title without losing a single game.

France was the only team to qualify for Euro 2004 by winning all its games and only a 0-0 tie with the Dutch in Rotterdam two months ago stopped Santini's men setting a new world record of 15 international victories in a row.

Although Zinedine Zidane didn't win any titles with Real Madrid this season, he captured the FIFA world player of the year award.

While the powerhouse leagues of Spain, Italy, England and Germany didn't get a single team into the Champions League final, France did, although Monaco lost 3-0 to Porto. Olympique Marseille made it to the UEFA Cup final but lost 2-0 to Valencia.

If anyone is to take the European title away from the French it could be Giovanni Trapattoni's Italy.

The veteran coach has an abundance of talent in attack and, if the French team has weaknesses, it is in defense.

Marcel Desailly has shown signs this season that time is catching up with him. The tall defender was on the Marseille team that won the Champions League final 11 years ago against AC Milan, the club he later joined.

Although Desailly was a star with Milan for several seasons before joining Chelsea, the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi could give him a tough time in Portugal.

There's a chance France and Italy will meet again in the final. But first the French have to beat England on day two of the three-week championship.

Sven-Goran Eriksson's England will rely heavily on four star players -- David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes -- and right now only Liverpool's Gerrard is in any sort of form.

The Swede has lost only one of 19 competitive England games though -- and that was to a Brazilian side on course for a fifth World Cup title. Even if his players lose to the French in their opening game, they can make up for it and reach the quarterfinal by beating Switzerland and Croatia.

Host Portugal and neighbor Spain are in Group A and meet in the third round of group games in Lisbon's Alvalade Stadium. That will probably be to decide who tops the group and who finishes second because Russia and Greece are likely to be booking their flights home by then.

The top two in that group probably will face either France or England in the quarters.

In the other half of the draw, the Germans, Czechs and Dutch will be fighting over two places in Group C, while rookie Latvia is unlikely to win any points.

If the unpredictable Dutch and consistent Czechs play to their best, the Germans could be going out early.

The Italians have to fight off Sweden, Denmark and Bulgaria in Group D but it will be a major surprise if Trapattoni's team doesn't reach the quarters.

A three-time World Cup winner, Italy has performed poorly in Europe's top competition and only won the title once on home soil in 1968. The Italians thought they had won last time in Rotterdam but conceded an injury time equalizer to the French and then an extra time winner.

The likelihood is that the quarterfinals should be Portugal vs. England; France vs. Spain; Italy vs. Netherlands; Sweden vs. Czech Republic.

That would lead to Portugal/England vs. Italy/Netherlands in one semifinal and France/Spain vs. Sweden/Czech Republic in the other. The final at Lisbon's Stadium of Light is July 4.

Tight security will surround the championship not only because of the threat of soccer violence but also because of possible terrorist attacks.

Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq could make the England team a terrorist target coincidentally while its fans are considered a major source of the hooligan problem.

With thousands of fans from England, Germany and the Netherlands likely to head for the tourist resorts of the Algarve, the region could become a battleground for trouble.
- Reuters & AP



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