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Spain and Portugal face awkward start in Euro Group A

Host nation Portugal and Iberian neighbours Spain could pay dearly for any mistakes against Group A outsiders Russia and Greece in what will be an awkward start to Euro 2004 for two sides with aspirations to the title.

Spain, European Championship winners in 1964, will have every reason to be wary of Greece, who beat them in Zaragoza to clinch the direct qualifying place from Group Six.

Unpredictable Russia, who won the first European Championship as the Soviet Union in 1960 and appeared in the final in 1964, 1972 and 1988, will also be a worry for the big two in the group.

The prospects of Group A playing to form, and sending Portugal and Spain through to the quarter-finals, will become a lot clearer on the opening day of the tournament on June 12.

Portugal's game against Greece will get the event underway in Porto, while Spain will take on Russia in Faro.

Portugal then play Russia while Spain face Greece before the showdown between the group favourites on June 20 in Lisbon, by which time both sides will desperately hope to have secured qualification.

Portugal have failed to beat any of their fellow Euro 2004 finalists in six attempts since Luiz Felipe Scolari, fresh from guiding Brazil to their fifth World Cup triumph in South Korea and Japan, took over in early 2003.

One of those games was a friendly against Greece and ended in a 1-1 draw and Scolari will hardly relish the rematch after so long without a competitive fixture.

"The fact that we haven't won any of our matches against Euro 2004 rivals tells me something," Scolari said after a 2-1 defeat by Italy in Braga.

"We have the quality but there are things we have to correct."

The quality in Scolari's squad comes from the outstanding front four of Luis Figo, Simao Sabrosa, Pauleta and Rui Costa.

But after the huge disappointment of their first-round exit at the World Cup there appears to be a lack of confidence about the team that Scolari has so far failed to rectify.

Portugal have no great European Championship record, with semi-final appearances in 1984 and 2000 their best two results.

A good start would provide a surge of self-relief and get the home crowds behind them but Greece will be no push-overs.

Under German coach Otto Rehhagel they won six successive games to reach their first major tournament since the World Cup in 1994, when they failed to score a goal.

This time, with striker Angelos Haristeas gaining in confidence and midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos, who has a year of top-class soccer in the English premier league with Bolton Wanderers under his belt, they have players capable of making an impact.

Spain will have to play up to their ranking of the third-best team in the world by beating Russia.

With Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola now retired from international football, new coach Saez has built a side based around the talents of exciting young forwards such as Vicente, Joaquin and Fernando Torres.

Spain had to get past Norway in the play-offs after their debacle against Greece and after a nervous first game they produced an excellent away performance, full of fire and skill, to clinch a 5-1 aggregate win.

Spain won the European Championship in 1964 and lost in the final to France 20 years later. A further two decades on, they will feel they have as good a chance as any side.

Russia also had to come through a play-off against Wales after a poor start to the qualifying campaign but since Georgy Yartsev took over as coach they are a transformed team.

The squad were rocked, however, by a positive dope test for Yegor Titov in the play-off and team morale could be affected.

Like Portugal, Russia had a dismal 2002 World Cup but in Porto midfielder Dmitry Alenichev and Celta Vigo's Alexander Mostovoi they at least have players who will feel at home in this part of the world.

Portugal will have a much greater home advantage, of course, while Spain have one of the best young squads around and the two favourites should have the individual quality to make it through.
- Kevin Fylan




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