| French captain Zinedine Zidane (right) is congratulated by teammates (from left) Sylvain Wiltord, Claude Makelele, Bixente Lizarazu and Mikael Silvestre after he scored the second goal against Israel in Palermo Wednesday. (AFP)
London: European champions France are set to become the first country to qualify for Euro 2004 after a 2-1 win over Israel gave them their fifth successive qualifying victory on Wednesday.
France top Group I with 15 points, nine ahead of Slovenia, and they need just one point from their last three games to make certain of being in next year’s finals in Portugal.
England boosted their chances of joining them with a superb 2-0 win over Turkey in Sunderland, Sven Goran Erikkson’s men replacing the previously unbeaten Turks at the top of Group VII.
Goals from substitute Darius Vassell and skipper David Beckham, who scored with a stoppage time penalty, gave England the points. But Beckham will miss England’s next qualifier against Slovakia in June after picking up his second yellow card of the tournament.
The Netherlands and the Czech Republic maintained their head-to-head battle for supremacy in Group III with both sides moving up to 10 points. The Dutch won 2-1 in Moldova and the Czechs crushed Austria 4-0 after their southern neighbours were reduced to 10 men early in the second half.
The big shock of the night was in Copenhagen where Bosnia won 2-0 at Group II leaders Denmark, unbeaten in their opening three games. As a result of that upset, Norway moved into first place at the expense of the Danes with a 2-0 win in Luxembourg.
Meanwhile, there was gloom for Northern Ireland, who lost 2-0 in Belfast to Greece and failed to score for the eighth successive match, an unwanted all-time national record.
They had James Quinn sent off — their first dismissal in 20 years — and suffered another red card in the second half when Keith Gillespie was banished.
The Irish are bottom of Group VI with all hope gone, while Spain forged further ahead at the top with a 3-0 home win over Armenia.
France recovered from a second minute Israeli goal scored by Omri Afek to win with strikes from David Trezeguet (23) and skipper Zinedine Zidane (45+1), who both also scored in the 6-0 drubbing of Malta on Saturday.
The match was played in neutral Palermo in Sicily because of the political situation in the Middle East, but nothing was going to distract the French from their aim, even if their play was less than impressive after the break. The England-Turkey match brought together the top two teams in the group, both going into the game unbeaten.
England, strongly criticised after a lacklustre 2-0 win over Liechtenstein on Saturday, played with real spirit and passion against the Turks who finally buckled under intense pressure when Vassell scored in the 75th minute.
Beckham made no mistake with almost the last kick from the penalty spot, but passions were running high on and off the pitch.
The players were involved in some pushing and shoving at the end, and there were reports of altercations in the players’ tunnel. Outside the stadium 90 English fans were arrested. The teams play meet again in Turkey in October.
The biggest upset of the night came in Copenhagen just five days after the Danes impressively won 5-2 in Romania.
Bosnia silenced a home crowd of over 30,000 with first-half goals from Sergej Barbarez and Elvir Baljic to throw Group II wide open.
Bosnia followed up their 2-0 home win over Luxembourg on Saturday to move on to six points from four matches and hand Denmark their first defeat of the campaign. Norway replaced Denmark at the top of the group after their 2-0 win over Luxembourg.
The Georgia-Switzerland match in Tbilisi was played amid tight security following a knife-throwing incident when Ireland were the visitors last Saturday. But there was no repeat of the crowd trouble that marred that game — or any goals — and The game ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
Albania’s recent improvement continued against the Irish in Tirana and although the visitors had the ball in the net five minutes from the end, Gary Breen’s header was disallowed for offside.
Switzerland stay top with eight points, followed by Russia (6), Albania (5) and Ireland (4). Georgia picked up their first point and make up the numbers at the bottom.
The biggest scorers in the early action were Slovakia, who beat Liechtenstein 4-0 in Trnava in a match played behind closed doors following Uefa’s ruling after racist chants when they played England in October.
Szilard Nemeth scored twice for Slovakia, with Lubomir Reiter and Vladimir Janocko adding the others.