How Europe looks

A DOUBLE June programme of European Championship qualifiers — hardly the ideal time for tired teams to play them — gives us a clearer idea of which will be playing in Portugal in the Finals next year.


English fans invade the pitch during the UEFA Euro 2004 qualifying match between England and Turkey at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland. England won the match 2-0. The wild rioting outside the stadium, the racial abuse and the two pitch invasions inside, arguably deserved more than just the heavy fine that followed.-Pic. ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES

A DOUBLE June programme of European Championship qualifiers — hardly the ideal time for tired teams to play them — gives us a clearer idea of which will be playing in Portugal in the Finals next year. Will England be there? That probably won't be decided till they play Turkey in Istanbul on October 11, a match, which seems all too likely to explode. Already the Football Association have very properly banned their fans, and the host of thugs among them, from attending the game, just as they have from the previous match in Macedonia.

If UEFA had the guts and the sense they would actually make things a great deal easier for England, though quite logically and legitimately, by awarding the recent Turkey-Macedonia game to the Macedonians 2-0. This because of the shockingly violent behaviour of the Turkish fans, incited by shameful torrents of bigoted nationalism from the "official" loudspeakers. So missiles were hurled at the Macedonians, one of which knocked a player out. In Italy such an offence would have meant the match being awarded automatically to Macedonia by 2-0. As it is Senol Gunes the Turks' shameless manager in an obvious damage limitation exercise had accused the FA of trying to get their game with England played behind closed doors. There's not a shred of evidence for this.

England themselves could hardly have complained had they been obliged to play behind closed doors at Leicester against Slovakia — who'd have beaten them comfortably had they only taken all their first-half chances. The wild rioting outside the Sunderland stadium on the occasion of the England-Turkey game, the racial abuse and the two pitch invasions inside, arguably deserved more than just the heavy fine that followed. But none of this could compare with what happened at the Besiktas stadium, to the Macedonians.

Who, bright and lively as they were in Turkey, capable as they were of humbling England in a 2-2 draw at Southampton, will be far tougher customers in England's next game than will feeble Lichtenstein against the Turks. England's game in hand, which if won would give them a point advantage over the Turks, may or may not be enough to win them the group and automatic qualification. But they'd certainly have to improve on their dithering performance against Slovakia when in the first-half their defence was almost comically open to counter attack, huge gaps appearing in the middle and on the left, a goal drifting past a bemused rearguard and goalkeeper David James directly from a free-kick.

Sven Goran Eriksson had to make changes and he did though he strangely insisted against the 4-4-2 evidence that he had stuck to his doomed diamond formation. What was horribly clear was that it left great gaps, not least on the left where Ashley Cole attacks but doesn't defend and in the centre where Matthew Upson and Gareth Southgate, standing in for Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand, are just not up to international standard.

Michael Owen saved England's bacon with his goals, Wayne Rooney looked immature and baffled, failure to bring left-sided Gareth Barry on at any time was as bewildering as ever. Yet, surely the most astonishing feature of the two Euro rounds was the strange collapse of Spain, beaten 1-0 by Greece in Saragossa, held to a draw by a Northern Ireland team, which hasn't scored a goal almost in living memory in Belfast. Both games, which Spain looked odds on to win and to consolidate their position at the top of the group.

The explanation, hardly an excuse, that their teams tend to flag at the end of a tough season hardly holds water, not least when numerous foreign stars of the Primera Liga seem to have no such problems when playing for their countries. The Spanish teams seemed to lack not only the drive and pace but intelligence. Though the Greeks had perhaps only one true chance in Saragossa, it was exploited with a powerful drive by Giannakopoulos, late in a first-half in which Spain had dominated but seldom threatened to score. On their flanks, the usually decisive Joseba Etxeberria and Vicente were well contained by a resolute Greek defence. True Vicente's Valencia club-mate Ruben Baraja was suspended from the game, but when he did come back in Belfast, there were still no goals: against a Northern Ireland team full of "nobodies" which resisted with commitment.

While Spain were struggling, weary looking, at home the four Dutchmen who play for Barcelona, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, both goal-scorers, Frank de Boer and Reiziger didn't look a bit tired in Minsk where they helped their team to a 2-0 win over Belerus. Kluivert thus becoming the highest ever scorer for Holland, with his 38th goal.

Germany still look a struggling side; they couldn't even beat Scotland in Glasgow but then they somehow seem to muddle through, as in the 2002 World Cup where they somehow reached the Final despite some dismal displays. The Scots, equalising after a quickly taken free-kick through Kenny Miller, roused the kind of celebrations which might have greeted victory over the likes of Brazil but these days under the shaky managership of Berti Vogts, a German himself, they are plainly thankful for small mercies. Germany's subsequent win in the Faroe Islands keeps them on top of the group but there is a lot of rebuilding for Rudi Voller to do.

Italy, after a dismal start, are looking up, and Francesco Totti was in dazzling form in Helsinki where he and Alex del Piero scored in the 2-0 win against Finland. Wales still on top of the group and to the delight of their manager Mark Hughes need only a draw on August 20 away to Serbia to be sure of at least second place and a play off position; the Serbs having lost in Baku to Azerbaijan; who drew with them in Serbia. Dejan "The Genius" Savicevic, once such a Yogoslavia and Milan star, resigned as manager. But Wales must raise their sights and look for a good result in Italy next September, which could give them top spot and automatic qualification.

Holland and the Czechs, with Jan Kohler among the goals, are neck and neck in Group 3 and the leadership may not be decided till they meet in the Czech Republic on September 10, having drawn 1-1 in Holland. Ireland's two wins, gives them a chance, though they only scraped through in Dublin versus Albania. Their visit to Switzerland who beat them in Dublin could be crucial on October 11.