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France hope to keep rolling

London: The recent furore over the value of international friendlies will be forgotten when Europe turns its attention to Euro 2004 qualifying Saturday.

Eighteen qualifiers are being played around the continent on Saturday ó with another 18 next Wednesday.

Italy, runners-up in 2000, are down in third place in group IX following a defeat to Wales and a draw with Serbia & Montenegro, managing just a 2-0 away win over Azerbaijan.

They face Finland where another failure will leave them a huge task in securing top spot. Wales are the unlikely pace-setters in the group as they seek to reach their first major finals since the 1958 World Cup.

England handed the group VII initiative to Turkey with their home draw against Macedonia, though they should return to winning ways when they visit Liechtenstein for their first-ever match against the tiny Alpine nation.

Turkey top the group on maximum nine points.

Irelandís excellent qualifying form in recent years has deserted them this season, with defeats against Russia and Switzerland leaving them in fourth place in group X without a point.

Group leaders Switzerland are not in action so Russia have the chance to go top if they chalk up their third successive win, away to Albania.

European champions France quickly recovered from their awful World Cup by winning their first three Euro qualifiers, scoring 11 goals in the process.

They will expect to continue both trends at home to Malta, while Cyprus and Israel meet in Limassol in a game that could go a long way to determining who gets second spot.

Spain top group VI but face probably the toughest game when they visit second-placed Ukraine.

Germany head group V also with maximum points from two games.

Scotland and Iceland, second and third in the group, meet in Glasgow.

The Netherlands and the Czech Republic go head-to-head for control of group III in possibly the most attractive tie of the weekend.

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