| Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari with Pauleta during training at Porto’s Antas Stadium Tuesday. Portugal play Macedonia in a friendly Wednesday. (AFP)
London: Holders France have put a poor World Cup well behind them with their flying start to the defence of their European title.
They play Israel in Sicily on Wednesday in one of the 17 Euro 2004 qualifiers. Other intriguing games include England taking on Turkey, the Czech Republic against Austria, and Albania, on a high after beating Russia, at home to Ireland.
Saturday’s sparkling 6-0 thrashing of Malta took France to 12 points. They have scored 17 and conceded just one goal. Israel are second on four points. The match is being played in Palermo because of the unstable political situation in the Middle East.
Turkey have continued the form that took them to last year’s World Cup semi-finals, winning their first three Euro 2004 qualifiers.
England, on the other hand, have been far from impressive. They beat Slovakia in their opening game but were then held to a 2-2 home draw by Macedonia and gave a lacklustre display in beating Liechtenstein 2-0 on Saturday.
The Czech Republic’s incredible run of 15 successive European championship qualifying wins going back to 1995 was ended with a 1-1 draw with The Netherlands on Saturday and the two teams remain locked together on seven points at the top of group III. Both are in action again on Wednesday.
The Czechs host Austria, still in the hunt in third place on six points, while the Dutch travel to Moldova, who are pointless after three games.
Group II is similarly poised. Denmark moved top on seven points after their impressive 5-2 win in Romania and they will expect another three points at home to Bosnia.
Norway, also on seven, should match them away to Luxembourg while Romania, third on six points don’t play.
Scotland go into Wednesday’s game in Lithuania top of group V on seven points, above Germany on goal difference. The Scots beat Iceland 2-1 but know they will be in for a tough away test Lithuania, who drew 1-1 with Germany in Nuremberg.
Ireland also began badly with two defeats but Albania’s stunning 3-1 win over Russia has opened up group X. Ireland, 2-1 winners in Georgia on Saturday, now face the Albanians in Tirana. Switzerland, who lead the group on seven points, play in Georgia.
Croatia had one of the best results of the weekend programme when they thrashed Belgium 4-0 to resurrect a group VIII campaign that had started with a goalless draw and a defeat.
They should claim another three points at home to Andorra and will hope Estonia can do them a favour at home to Bulgaria, who top the group on nine points after three wins.
Spain and Ukraine drew 2-2 in Kiev to keep group VI a likely fight between the pair of them.
Spain, who lead the way with seven points, should move to 10 after a home game against Armenia, while Ukraine, second on six, are not playing.
Poland and Hungary drew 0-0 in Saturday’s only goalless draw to leave Latvia as the unlikely leaders of group IV.
Latvia, with seven points don’t play on Wednesday. Poland, third on four points, should beat San Marino but Hungary, second on five, face a tough home game against Sweden.
Forget history: Gunes
Turkey coach Senol Gunes says that history will count for nothing when his team meet England.
Turkey have played England eight times, all between 1984 and 1993, losing seven and drawing one and are yet to score their first goal against England.
"The change in football has been very quick and now there is no big difference between big and small countries," Gunes told reporters. "We have improved a lot in recent years.
"We reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2000 and finished third in the World Cup last year whereas England could not make the quarter-finals of Euro 2000 and lost to Brazil in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
"Our success in those two campaigns does not guarantee we will win Wednesday's game but England's past record against Turkey does not mean that they will win.
"The future is more important than the past for us...and beating England would give us a big advantage in our group (because) it would mean that we would see light at the end of the tunnel in trying to qualify for the European championships."
"I always tell my players to enjoy themselves when they train and when they play. I obviously don't know what the result will be but we will play to win and we want to display the good and beautiful side of the game in doing that.