Paris: Italy must pour into attack against a solid Finland defence in Helsinki on Wednesday to stay in the running for automatic qualification for next year’s European Championships.
Group nine has a strange look, with Italy trailing unfashionable Wales by five points with four games each left to play so Giovanni Trapattoni’s team badly need a victory to close the gap before the summer break.
Lazio’s Bernardo Corradi will be the lone striker in the absence of Inter’s Christian Vieri, but he should get plenty of options from the midfield trio of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, and Stefano Fiore, who replaces the injured Mauro Camoranesi on the right.
“The doubts that I had have been resolved,” said Trapattoni. “I don’t want to disrupt the balance that we have found over the last week. I have no real worries about playing Gianluca Zambrotta as a left-back.
Fiore can drift into the centre so long as he remembers to cover when necessary.”
The backbone of the Finnish team is Liverpool captain Sami Hyypia, who scored the first goal in the 3-0 drubbing of Serbia and Montenegro on Saturday.
Mikael Forssell, the Chelsea striker who spent last season on loan to Borussia Monchengladbach, leads the attack in a team who trail Italy by a point.
The Italians will not fancy entering the playoff that the ten second-placed teams must endure to book a ticket for the finals in Portugal.
Group six leaders Spain were given a shock with a 1-0 defeat by Greece on Saturday, but should recover their confidence against Northern Ireland in Belfast as their opponents have failed to score in almost 18 months and have just a point from their four matches.
“In football there are some things you just can’t explain,” said Spain coach Inaki Saez after Stylianos Giannakopoulos’ goal in Zaragoza reduced the Spaniards’ lead to a single point.
Real Madrid star Raul is expected to start in attack despite suffering muscle problems which cut short his participation in the team’s first training session in Belfast.
Germany are suddenly looking vulnerable in group five after being held to a surprise 1-1 draw by Scotland on Saturday, bringing the Scots level on eight points with Rudi Voeller’s World Cup finalists.
Key midfield playmaker Michael Ballack is worried although his side should have no problem in bringing back three points from the Faroe Islands.
“At the moment we’re just not dominating opponents away from home, so we have a lot of work to do,” Ballack said. “Some players are showing signs of a lack of class. At the end of the day, Scotland were one of the weakest teams we’ve played and that speaks volumes.”
Ireland’s influential winger Damien Duff was on Monday battling to be fit for the group ten clash with Georgia after limping out of Saturday’s 2-1 win over Albania with sore knee tendons.
Lying third on seven points but trailing Russia on goal difference, the Irish need a victory before they face the Russians in September.
Denmark and Norway continue their battle of Scandinavian group two — both have ten points — as the Danes travel to Luxembourg and Norway host Romania.
With Holland ahead in group three, Euro 96 finalists Czech Republic need to beat Moldova to pull level on points with the Dutch.
Midfielder Fredrik Ljungberg limped off the field during Monday’s training session with a sore foot and may miss Sweden’s Euro 2004 qualifier against Poland on Wednesday, Swedish SVT2 television news reported.