| France’s Thierry Henry and Olivier Dacourt (top) celebrate David Trezeguet’s goal against Israel in a Euro 2004 qualifier at the Stade de France near Paris on Saturday. (Reuters)
London: England, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Greece all booked their places in the Euro 2004 finals on the last day of qualifying competition on Saturday.
Scotland, Russia, Norway, Spain, Latvia, Turkey, Croatia and Wales were confirmed as runners-up in their respective groups to join Slovenia and the Netherlands in the draw for the play-offs to be made in Frankfurt on Monday. The double-leg ties will be held on November 15-16 and 18-19.
With 11 of the 16 finalists now known — hosts Portugal, champions France, Sweden, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic had already claimed their places — next year’s finals look likely to be the strongest ever.
There were no real surprises on Saturday as most of Europe’s strongest nations asserted their positions and made sure they did not miss out on either the finals or the play-offs.
The performance of the day was by England, who survived the pressure cooker atmosphere of a visit to World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in Istanbul and came away with a goalless draw that secured top spot in group 7. Turkey finished second a point behind.
After England’s insane build-up to the match, which included plots by the players to boycott the match in “solidarity” with teammate Rio Ferdinand who failed to take an appointed drugs test, that was quite some achievement.
England also survived a missed penalty from skipper David Beckham who skied his 37th-minute spot-kick when he lost his footing and slipped as he struck the ball.
Italy were among the other big guns who avoided slipping on a banana-skin as they beat Azerbaijan 4-0 in Reggio Calabria to finally clinch first place in group 9 and an automatic spot in the finals.
Wales, who led the group after winning their first four matches and still harboured dreams of reaching their first major finals since the 1958 World Cup if they won and Italy lost, had to be satisfied with their already assured play-off place.
The Welshmen lost 2-3 at home to Serbia & Montenegro in Cardiff after Serbia scored twice and Wales scored once in the last 10 minutes. Wales took just one point from their last four matches and scraped into the play-offs by a point from the Serbians.
Germany saved their best performance for their last qualifier with a 3-0 win over Iceland in Hamburg to break the hearts of the visitors who led the group last month. The defeat, together with Scotland’s 1-0 win against Lithuania in Glasgow, meant Iceland slipped to third place in group 5 and out of contention.
Iceland have still never reached the finals of the World Cup or European championship after being so close at one stage.
Germany won with goals from Michael Ballack (9), Fredi Bobic (59) and Kevin Kuranyi (79) to clinch first place in group 5 on 18 points.
Scotland made sure they finished second behind the Germans with a 70th-minute goal from substitute Darren Fletcher that killed off Lithuania’s resistance at Hampden Park. Scotland finished on 14 points, one clear of Iceland. Switzerland, co-hosts of the 2008 finals with Austria, made sure they will also be at the 2004 party by rolling over Ireland 2-0 in Basel, eliminating the Irish in the process.
Portugal, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, England, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Greece
INTO PLAY-OFF ROUND
Scotland, Russia, Norway, Spain, Latvia, Turkey, Croatia, Wales, Slovenia, The Netherlands