The European championship

WE now know the draw for the coming European Championship next June in Portugal with France and England in Group B meeting in that section's first game.

WE now know the draw for the coming European Championship next June in Portugal with France and England in Group B meeting in that section's first game. Soon after France had won the last version of this tournament on that golden goal in Rotterdam, England went to Paris to force a draw with an equaliser by Michael Owen. Since then, France, World Cup winners in 1998, have failed badly in the 2002 version when Thierry Henry, at present in such devastatingly effective form, the very scourge of Inter at San Siro, had such a poor time of it, even getting himself sent off in France's last game.

Michael Owen (left) celebrates with Wayne Rooney after scoring England's first goal against Liechtenstein in the UEFA Euro 2004 qualifying match. So much always depends on Owen, so often injured, when it comes to scoring, though much of the weight could be taken off him if Rooney, the 18-year-old prodigy, can only maintain his promise. — Pic. BEN RADFORD/GETTY IMAGES-

France's collapse in the far east had much to do with the decision to keep the waning Frank Leboeuf at centre back — when Senegal sensationally exploited his failings to win that opening game — and with the injury to the masterly Zinedine Zidane which confined him to a mere token appearance. But Zidane this season had done dazzling things for Real Madrid, and with Lilian Thuram moving from right back into the middle, with the emergence of Auxerre's resilient Boumsong, that defence looks a great deal more solid now, while in attack Robert Pires is much more now than just a winger.

Overall, you could well make France favourite to win the title again. On recent form they should have the beating of an England team which has never really looked convincing since that amazing 5-1 win in Munich over Germany, and which flopped out of the last World Cup in the quarter-finals against Brazil even though the opposition was reduced to 10 men for the last half hour.

It was bewildering to hear that the Football Association has offered Sven Goran Eriksson an extension of his contract to 2008 with another half million pounds tacked on top of the $3 million he is getting now. Persisting rumours that Chelsea want him to replace Claudio Ranieri — who after all has been going very well with the London team — seem to have moved the FA to such an offer. Yet, one's mind goes back to the words of an England defender after that defeat by Brazil, that at half time, "We needed Winston Churchill and we got Iain Duncan Smith." True, England have very seldom lost so called "official" matches under Eriksson, but look how shakily they held top place in their World Cup qualifying group. It took a non-existent free kick, superbly converted by David Beckham, to gain such a shaky home draw against Greece and thus avoid the play offs.

There was great jubilation among the England players when their 0-0 draw in Istanbul against a Turkish team which has gone steeply downhill since the World Cup qualified them for Portugal. Yet, that was hardly a remarkable performance, even if England would have won had David Beckham put that penalty away.

So much always depends on Owen, so often injured, when it comes to scoring, though much of the weight could be taken off him if Wayne Rooney, the 18-year-old Everton prodigy, can only maintain his promise. There have been squalls recently — a confrontation with his club manager David Moyes after he was substituted against Bolton when he looked far out of form.

I still wish that Eriksson would stop damning the incentive Joe Cole — whom he should have brought on in Japan against Brazil — with faint praise and realise that he is the best creative player England have: though his Chelsea colleague Frank Lampard has run into a fine period of form. David Beckham's right foot is still a potent weapon, Steve Gerrard of Liverpool is an increasingly powerful force in midfield, where Paul Scholes — even if he so seldom scores for England these days — remains a major asset.

But to play such trundlers as the Manchester United men Phil Neville and Nicky Butt in central midfield is too negative by far, even if they seem to fit into Eriksson's so called diamond formation. Nor does the ever erratic David James give true confidence in goal. In front of him, however, Chelsea's John Terry, in the absence of Rio Ferdinand (who walked out on that drugs test), showed that he can impressively cope with the international game.

Ruud van Nistelrooy's (right) fury in an earlier match upset the Dutch manager Advocaat, who seemed sure to leave him out in the qualifying play offs against Scotland insisting Nistelrooy and Patrick Kluivert (left) couldn't play together. Then he changed his mind and though Holland lost a game they should have won in Glasgow, they thrashed the Scots in the return. — Pic. ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES-

Let us however draw a veil over England's performance in friendlies when Eriksson has wastefully thrown a plethora of substitutes on to the field at half-time. As indeed he did in the recent defeat by Denmark. A team, which could well trouble the opposition in Group C, where the Italians will hope to make progress.

Immediately after the World Cup, who would have put money on Gianni Trapattoni surviving as manager of a team, which had performed so poorly? Yet, there he still is, turning things around after that group qualifying defeat by Wales in Cardiff, with a team, which looks capable of making progress in Portugal. Paolo Maldini has retired from the international game, though "Trap" would love to make him change his mind, Bobo Vieri, whose right footed miss was one of the bizarre features of the 2002 World Cup, looks a sulky figure now when he plays for Inter.

But with Francesco Totti more effective then ever — let us forget the way he smashed up that dressing room when Italy were eliminated from the World Cup — Pippo Inzaghi regularly scoring goals, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro still present in central defence, Alex del Piero gracefully effective, Marco di Vaio an excellent alternative up front, the Italians should do well enough.

Group D looks interesting with the Czechs, recent conquerors of Holland in the qualifying phase, meeting them again in Aveiro on June 19. That previous game was the one is which Ruud van Nistelrooy was substituted for his fury. Manager Advocaat seemed sure to leave him out in the qualifying play offs against Scotland insisting he and Patrick Kluivert couldn't play together. Then he changes his mind and though Holland lost a game they should have won in Glasgow, they thrashed the Scots in the return.

But the Czech, with Pavel Nedved so powerful in midfield, supported by the clever Rosicky in midfield, with the veteran Poborsky (a star of the 1996 tournament) in form on the right wing, Jan Koller's height and head in attack, are formidable.

Portugal, the hosts, have as such been confined for two years to friendlies. They have such stars as Luis Figo on the right flank, Pauleta as spearhead, Rui Costa to keep the wheels turning in midfield, the young Ronaldo an emerging star, now at Manchester United. But their form in friendlies, even under their 2002 World Cup winning manager "Big Phil", has been largely disappointing. When it comes to what might be called The Real Things, perhaps we shall see them express the full range of their talents. Neighbours and rivals Spain, with Raul up front and a much improved Russian team with Bulkykin getting goals are, however, bound to extend them.