| Germany’s Andreas Hinkel and Italy’s Alessandro del Piero in an intense battle for the ball during their friendly at the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium in Stuttgart on Wednesday. Italy won 1-0. (AFP)
London: France, Argentina and Italy grabbed the spotlight with impressive friendly victories on the first major international soccer night of the season on Wednesday.
Reigning European champions France were outstanding as they demolished Switzerland 2-0 in Geneva, while Argentina started slowly but twice came from behind to beat Uruguay 3-2 in a superb match in Florence, a warm-up for the South American World Cup qualifiers which start next month.
In another high profile friendly between two former world champions, Italy overcame an injury-hit Germany 1-0 in Stuttgart with Christian Vieri scoring the only goal after 17 minutes.
More than 20 friendlies were played throughout Europe with Euro 2004 hopefuls England, Turkey, Greece and Slovenia among the winners.
The friendlies were the last chance for coaches to fine-tune their teams before the European Championship qualifiers re-start with matches on September 6 and 10.
England beat Croatia by a flattering 3-1 scoreline in Ipswich while Turkey, leading England in the chase for the one automatic spot from their qualifying group, looked impressive in their 2-0 win over a modest Moldova in Ankara.
Greece, who ended last season as the surprise leaders over Spain in their qualifying section, scored a morale-boosting 2-1 win over Sweden in Norkopping.
Slovenia, involved in a battle with Israel for the runners-up spot behind France in their group, beat Hungary 2-1, despite having their captain Zlatko Zahovic sent off, but Israel provided the biggest upset of the day.
Their 2-1 win over Russia in Moscow brought to a head a crisis in the Russian camp.
Portugal, who will host the European championship finals next June and July, beat Kazakhstan 1-0 in a home match in Chaves.
The outstanding performance of the night belonged to France who outclassed Switzerland with goals from Sylvain Wiltord early in the first half and Steve Marlet early in the second.
France were inspired by a masterful display by Zinedine Zidane who received a standing ovation from the home fans when he was substituted 21 minutes from time.
On a night of relatively low-scoring matches, Argentina and Uruguay produced a five-goal thriller in a River Plate derby oddly set in Italy where many of the South American neighbours’ leading players play their club football.
Argentina twice came from behind before winning 3-2 with a goal five minutes from time from substitute Andres D’Alessandro.
Juan Sebastian Veron, who scored on his debut for Chelsea at the weekend, scored again with a thunderous free kick just before halftime.
That cancelled out Uruguay’s opener scored by his former Manchester United teammate Diego Forlan who fired home after two minutes from the edge of the box.
In the other match between former world champions, Italy beat Germany 1-0 leaving the Germans still looking for their first win over a major international side for almost three years.
Italy’s powerful strike force of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Vieri combined well, but the Germans — without eight injured players — also did well to hold the score down to just one goal.
Vieri’s goal though was a worthy winner, ending a sweet passing move with a powerfully hit shot from just inside the box.
England were another former world champion side to chalk up a victory, but their winning 3-1 scoreline over Croatia glosses over a fine performance from the Croatians who dominated the match for a long period.
Beckham marked his first match in England since his move to Real Madrid with the opening goal from the penalty spot while his side’s other strikes came from a Michael Owen header and an 18-metre thunderbolt from Frank Lampard. Ivica Mornar scored for Croatia.
Turkey, who face England in what is likely to be the group decider in October, had no trouble against Moldova with Nihat Kahveci and Okan Yilmaz scoring in each half. Despite the modest opposition, Turkey looked impressive.
Greece, who are also eying a place in the Euro 2004 finals, came from behind to beat Sweden 2-1 in Norkopping with two goals in as many minutes midway through the second half.
Stylianos Giannakopoulos equalised in the 63rd minute, flicking the ball past replacement goalkeeper Magnus Hedman before Pantelis Kafes notched the winner two minutes later.
Sweden went ahead with an excellent goal from Anders Svensson, but Sweden’s rythym was upset when midfielder Tobias Linderoth was sent off on the stroke of halftime, one of eight players sent off on the night.
Two who went were Dutchman Philip Cocu and Belgian Olivier de Cock for separate incidents in the closing stages of their countries’ 1-1 draw in Brussels.
Mihails Zemlinskis of Latvia and Bahtiyr Ashurmatov of Uzbekistan were also sent off after a brawl between most of the players marred the end of Uzbekistan’s 3-0 win in Riga.