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Former champions battle it out in tough Euro Group D

Every tournament produces its 'group of death' and the battle between the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic and Latvia is without doubt Euro 2004's toughest group.

Latvia, in the finals of a major tournament for the first time in their history, face an unenviable task against three nations with a rich pedigree in the competition.

West Germany won the European title in 1972 and 1980 and the united Germany were victors in 1996 -- against the Czechs.

The old Czechoslovakia won the competition in 1976, beating West Germany, while the Dutch success came in 1988.

To add to the already intense competition of making the two qualifying spots there are historical rivalries that will liven up the encounters next month.

A game between the Germans and Dutch is one of European football's great fixtures, always with additional spice and often a little rancour.

The Dutch have not lost to Germany since a friendly in 1996 but have not faced them in a major tournament since the European Championship in Sweden in 1992, when they won 3-1.

Two clashes with the former West Germany remain memorable in what has become an international version of a 'derby' match.

There was a 2-1 Dutch win in 1988 when Marco van Basten's late effort sent the men in orange through to the final where they beat the former Soviet Union -- their only major title.

Two years later in the World Cup in Italy, the Dutch lost 2-1 to West Germany in a great second-round game spoilt by an ugly incident when defender Frank Rijkaard spat at Rudi Voeller, now the Germany coach.

The Czechs have revenge on their mind -- it was the Germans who beat them in the final of Euro 96 and a defeat to the Dutch played a major part in stopping the central Europeans from qualifying for the 2002 World Cup finals.

That was partly avenged in qualifying for Portugal. A 1-1 draw in Rotterdam and the Czechs' 3-1 win on home soil ensured Karel Brueckner's side qualified automatically for the finals and forced the Netherlands into a playoff against Scotland.

If there is a slight favourite to top the group it is probably, on form, the Czechs.

Since the 64-year-old Brueckner took over at the end of 2001, they have lost only twice in 22 matches and, inspired by European Footballer of the Year Pavel Nedved, they cruised through the qualifying stage with seven wins and one draw.

Former Manchester United winger Karel Poborsky, towering Dortmund striker Jan Koller and his club team mate and playmaker Tomas Rosicky, also help to make up an impressive Czech side.

The line-up combines experience from the Euro 96 side with fresh blood injected from the successful under-21 side.

Dutch coach Dick Advocaat also has no shortage of talent with Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf in midfield and an attack that could feature Ruud van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert, Roy Makaay, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink or Pierre van Hooijdonk.

Germany showed in reaching the 2002 World Cup final that a shortage of world-class players has not reduced their ability to win games at the highest level.

Their key player, midfielder Michael Ballack, will be desperate to make up for missing the defeat to Brazil in the World Cup final due to suspension.

So what hope for little Latvia, whose team is largely made up of semi-professionals and amateurs from a country with an eight-team top division that plays during the European summer?

Coach Aleksandrs Starkovs has built a side based on the classic East European method of swift counter-attacks with lone striker Maris Verpakovskis their main threat.

Having beaten World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in a play-off after winning in Sweden during qualifying, the Baltic nation have proved they can upset illustrious opponents and, while they will not reach the last eight, they could have a big say in who does.
- Dusan Bucanek




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