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France and England favourites to qualify from Group B

European champions France and World Cup quarter-finalists England are clear favourites to emerge from Group B and it will be a major surprise if unpredictable Croatia or underdogs Switzerland squeeze their way into the last eight of Euro 2004.

The big guns clash on June 13, the second day of the tournament, in Lisbon with both camps looking forward to the match, especially as so many of the French squad play in the premier league.

"It's very important for us French who play in England," says Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira. "It's good to play them again. We have been looking forward to this for a long time."

Since losing their world crown after an awful showing at the 2002 World Cup, France have won 18 of 22 matches, losing just once, while scoring 57 goals and conceding only eight.

The one blemish on their record since coach Jacques Santini took over from Roger Lemerre in July 2002 was a 2-0 defeat to the Czech Republic in a Paris friendly in February last year.

France won all their Euro 2004 qualifiers and will be looking for another perfect run to victory in the finals.

Much will depend on playmaker Zinedine Zidane, who missed the first two games at the World Cup through injury, and his inspirational midfield partner Vieira supplying the forwards.

There is no shortage of talent to turn chances into goals with Arsenal's Thierry Henry, Manchester United's Louis Saha and David Trezeguet of Juventus all capable of finding the net.

The only worry for France is their ageing defence. But if that stands firm, they will progress.

England's prospects also look bright with coach Sven Goran Eriksson boasting a trio of world-class players in midfielders David Beckham and Steven Gerrard plus striker Michael Owen.

If England survive their tough opening game with at least a draw they can look forward to easier challenges from Croatia and Switzerland and should book a place in the second round.

England topped Group Seven after an unbeaten campaign but that success was overshadowed by a hooligan element among the fans that could well bring their tournament to a premature end.

UEFA have clearly stated that trouble off the pitch could end in disqualification on it for England.

The main concern on the pitch will be the absence of World Cup defender Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United after he received an eight-month ban for missing a dope test.

Croatia have little chance of matching their outstanding third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup campaign.

After taking over a team low on confidence following an early exit from the 2002 World Cup finals, coach Otto Baric travelled across Europe looking for a striker and a playmaker.

Their roller-coaster qualifying campaign ended on a high in November's playoffs when they beat Slovenia 2-1 on aggregate to justify the faith shown in the 70-year-old Baric.

He used 40 players in qualifying but discovered a deadly forward in Monaco's Dado Prso, who got four goals in his team's 8-3 Champions League win over Deportivo Coruna in November.

Baric's team is solid at the back but he still needs "one creative genius to enrich our game" if they are to beat the Swiss in their opener to have a chance of qualifying.

Switzerland's less than impressive warm-up results suggest their ageing squad will just be making up the numbers.

However, coach Koebi Kuhn, whose team will be at their first major tournament since Euro 96, believes they can use their underdog status as motivation to spring a few surprises.

A defeat to the Croats in their opening match, though, and any hopes of getting out of the group will be virtually gone.

Kuhn relies on a small group of senior players with the Yakin brothers, Murat in central defence and Hakan just behind the strikers, the key to the team's performances.

Switzerland won Group 10 by a point over Russia after beating Ireland in the final game.

But while they are strong on dedication and perspiration they lack inspiration, having no tournament experience and a dearth of genuine pace and high-quality match-winners.

Those factors will conspire against them in Portugal.
- Mike Collett




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