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Italy face strong Scandinavian challenge in Euro Group C

Giovanni Trapattoni's Italy start as clear favourites in Group C but will not be looking forward to facing the physical style of Scandinavia's two representatives in Euro 2004 next month.

Denmark and Sweden will both fancy their chances of qualifying via at least the second place in the group, while Bulgaria will need to rediscover the surprise element they used so effectively in the World Cup 10 years ago.

The opening games in Group C on June 14 should give a strong indication as to whether the form book will be any guide.

Italy face Denmark in Guimaraes and Trapattoni has the advantage of having seen several of the top Danes in regular Serie A action over the past couple of seasons.

The main threat to the Italian defence will come from Jon Dahl Tomasson, who this season has emerged as a key part of Carlo Ancelotti's AC Milan.

Club team mate Alessandro Nesta will have to keep a close eye on the blond striker whose career has blossomed at Feyenoord and Milan after a disappointing year at Newcastle United.

Udinese midfielder Martin Jorgensen's ability to penetrate a defence with his strong running and impressive long-range shooting make him arguably the biggest threat.

Having been close to moves to bigger clubs on several occasions, Jorgensen will use the tournament as a chance to really make his mark on the European stage.

The Danish defence has plenty of experience facing Italy's best as Udinese's Per Kroldrup, Inter's Thomas Helveg and Martin Laursen, who will be leaving AC Milan for Aston Villa after the tournament, are all top-quality defenders.

The opening game will set the tone for Italy, who often get nervous and retreat into a cautionary stance at big tournaments.

If Francesco Totti and Christian Vieri hit their best form against the Danes it could be the kick-start to a memorable tournament for the 'Azzurri'.

Sweden start with a must-win game against Bulgaria.

There are few doubts about a solid Swedish defence, which conceded only three goals in the qualifiers, but they must show the attacking flair that has often been missing.

Arsenal live-wire Fredrik Ljungberg and the stocky Kim Kallstrom of Rennes provide the midfield dynamism but the key question is whether the gifted, but often distracted, Ajax striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be at his best.

The lack of a genuine top-class striker since Henrik Larsson initially retired from internationals has now been overcome by Larsson's return -- a huge boost for Sweden's coaching double act of Tommy Soderberg and Lars Lagerback.

Larsson's decision to postpone his international exit will add considerable firepower to the Swedish attack and increase their chances of a place in the last eight.

It also increases the chances for the coaches to cover themselves in some kind of glory on the international stage before Soderberg retires.

Bulgaria face an even bigger challenge.

They dominated qualifying Group Eight, finishing top with 17 points, one clear of Croatia and Belgium.

Coach Plamen Markov has done an excellent job, changing the team's style and, more importantly, boosting their confidence following the failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

But there are serious questions about a defence that has no settled line-up and the central pairing of Ilian Stoyanov and Elin Topuzakov have played poorly for their club Levski Sofia.

Markov's main hope is that his trio of creative players hit their best form so the Bulgarians can surprise their opponents in the way the team led by Hristo Stoichkov did in reaching the last four at the 1994 World Cup.

Striker Dimitar Berbatov of Bayer Leverkusen, midfielder Stilian Petrov of Celtic and VfL Wolfsburg forward Martin Petrov -- all in their mid-20s -- are at the heart of Bulgaria's revival since the failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

Bulgaria must get results against the Scandinavians before facing Italy in the final game of what promises to be a tight group.
- Simon Evans




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