London: Italy are rolling out the big guns for their Euro 2004 qualifier against Finland in Helsinki next week, a match they must win to keep a check on the surprise progress of Wales.
The 2000 finalists are five points adrift of the Welsh — who are not involved in the 37 qualifying matches spread over Saturday and Wednesday — and will be keen to reign in the upstart Group IX leaders.
The Netherlands and the Czech Republic, neck and neck in their group, Germany, Spain and England are other major sides keen to tighten their grip on top place and a direct route to the European championship finals in Portugal next year.
Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni waited patiently while some of his leading players from AC Milan and Juventus rested after their European Cup final exertions and fielded a number of reserves in Tuesday’s 2-0 warm-up win over Northern Ireland.
But he will be glad to have the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Del Piero back in the fold in Helsinki Wednesday as Italy also look to keep the Finns and Serbia and Montenegro at bay.
Wales lead the group with a maximum 12 points followed by Italy on seven, the Serbs with five and Finland — who host the former Yugoslavia on Saturday — on three.
Germany are also equal on points with two other teams, Scotland and Lithuania, in Group V, but have games in hand over both their rivals and should pick up all three points when they visit Glasgow Saturday.
Pulling the strings for the 2002 World Cup runners-up will be Michael Ballack in his first match for Germany this year. He recovered from injury to inspire Bayern Munich to victory in the German Cup final, clinching the double, last month.
Trying to spoil their plans is compatriot and former coach Berti Vogts, praying that his Scots pull off a surprise that looks distinctly unlikely judging by their form in a 1-1 draw at home to New Zealand last week.
England are without suspended captain David Beckham for their Group VII match at home to Slovakia Wednesday, which they must win to ensure they do not lose ground gained by beating Turkey in April.