The European picture

THE European championship qualifiers are up and running now and already there have been shocks and surprises. Notably in Moscow where a resuscitated Russian team under new management torpedoed Ireland 4-2 and put a large question mark against an Irish team which, after the World Cup, seemed to be riding high even without the ever-explosive and mutinous Roy Keane. Certainly they could have done with him in Moscow where their usually resilient defence shipped water horribly. For the Russians, by contrast, after a largely difficult and disappointing World Cup, it was a virtual rebirth under the managership of Valery Gazzayev. Note that the veteran sweeper, Viktor Onopko, was the only Russian player operating abroad.

I myself was in Helsinki to see another revitalised team, Wales, managed with increasing success by their former centre forward, Mark Hughes, get the better of Finland 2-0 while in the same group, Italy were winning by a similar score in Azerbaijan. But as Italian critics pointed out, the Welsh were facing much tougher opposition and the jury is still out on the azzurri's manager Giovanni Trapattoni who was widely expected to resign or be sacked after the team's bleak failures in the 2002 World Cup.

There is talk of recalling loyal and solid Dino Zoff as manager. Indeed I am among those who feel he should never have resigned after the Italians had reached the Final of the 2000 European Championship when they went out to France only on a Golden goal, Alex Del Piero having missed a couple of equally golden chances, and the team, much harder tested than France in the semifinals, plainly having run out of steam in the last stages.

In Baku the Italians were materially helped by a first half own goal to steady their nerves. "Trap" himself admitted afterwards that there had been some tension in the dressing room before the game, and that he himself had shared it. It had been noted how relatively subdued he had been in the earlier stages, though his old exuberant and explosive behaviour had manifested itself later on.

In the second half, a delightfully struck right footed free kick by Del Piero had given the Italians their second goal and done something to put behind them the grim memories of their defeat in Trieste by modest Slovenia in their precious game.

Criticised for his defensive approach by Del Piero and by Bobo Vieri, who limped out of the game in Baku giving way to a lively Vincenze Montella, Trap now has to face Yugoslavia in Naples and four days later in Cardiff, Wales. The Yugoslavs, a day before the Euro games, were thrashed 5-0 away to the Czechs in a friendly which suggests that they are a lot worse off than the Italians, who should be able to recall Francesco Totti, injured of late, for those two games.

He would then presumably play "in the hole" behind the two strikers, probably Vieri and Inzaghi, which would raise the question of what to do with Del Piero. The Welsh meanwhile are an increasingly confident team. "We'll beat Italy," said their abrasive energetic midfielder, Robbie Savage, to me on the plane back to London from Helsinki.

It could well happen, much in my view depending on how the Italians fare in Naples against the Yugoslavs. Confidence at the moment still seems frail despite the presence of so many star players; Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro in defence, Gianluigi Buffon in goal, not to mention that clutch of talented attackers.

But the Welsh, as Hughes emphasises, are now a team with high morale and all the confidence that they were so notably lacking when he took over from Bobby Gould. Moreover they do themselves have some excellent players though they can hardly on paper at least rival the panoply of stars available to the Italians. Playing with just big John Hartson up, and he has been in excellent form this season both in Croatia and Finland, Wales certainly have the wingers to support him.

Hughes is especially delighted with the form of Simon Davies, surely a new star, given his form on the right wing with both Wales and Tottenham. He scored in Croatia a remarkable solo goal, and in Helsinki he was a sore trial to the Finnish defence, getting the second Welsh goal set up to him by the hugely gifted Ryan Giggs, and so nearly scoring another, courtesy of a pass from Craig Bellamy who came on as substitute, having been flown to Helsinki by private jet.

This, because Bobby Robson, the manager of Newcastle, was so grudgingly reluctant to release him, Bellamy having come back after many months out through injury; yet having demonstrated both for Newcastle at Liverpool and with their reserves that he was perfectly fit to play and even to excel. That Wales now have new depth of resources was shown by the fact that tiny Robert Eanshaw the Zambian born Cardiff City striker didn't even get off the bench. This despite having made such a refulgent debut last May in Cardiff against Germany, when he scored the only goal of the game.

Perhaps one of the most significant moments in Helsinki came when the highly experienced Finland and Liverpool defender, Sami Hyypia, had no other recourse than clumsily to foul Davies in the first half on the edge of the box getting a yellow card which could well have been a red, clearly unable to cope with Davies' pace and control.

England that day had a largely meaningless friendly at Villa Park, drawing 1-1 with Portugal, manager Sven Goran Eriksson, no hero now, crassly putting on seven substitutes when it was thought and hoped he had put such grovelling gestures to the big clubs behind him. Just about the only consolation was the form of the aggressive young Leeds United striker Alan Smith who powerfully headed the English goal and looked every bit the international player. He could be a potent force if only he can subdue his over-combative instincts which time and again have seen yellow and red cards flashed at him. But after England's wretched show against 10-man Brazil in the World Cup the honeymoon with Sven Goran is well and truly ended. That five goal performance in Munich seems no more than a remote memory, even a freak. And Eriksson's intense desire to make money outside his 2 million a year England contract has not been endearing.

As for Berti Vogts, so mysteriously put in charge of Scotland, that 2-2 draw in the Faroe Islands makes him look still more of a liability.