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Since 1st March, 1999
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France not taking Slovenia for granted
- euro 2004 qualifiers l Uncertainty over Zidane availability persists

London: Seven teams, including defending champions France, could clinch their places alongside host Portugal in next summer’s European Championship finals on Wednesday.

France, Denmark, Sweden, Bulgaria, Italy, Switzerland and either the Czech Republic or the Netherlands will seal an automatic berth by winning their groups with victories in what for most teams will be their penultimate qualifying game.

While a number of other teams can ensure they clinch a place in the play-offs, next year’s finals will start to take shape on what is sure to be a dramatic night of action on Wednesday.

While they look absolutely certain to qualify after six straight wins, France will be taking nothing for granted against Slovenia when they meet in their Group One match in Ljubljana.

French coach Jacques Santini, whose side crushed Cyprus 5-0 in Paris on Saturday, said playmaker Zlatko Zahovic was the main threat for his men after his stunning performance in Slovenia’s 3-1 win over Israel on Saturday.

“We have to beware of Zahovic and be careful with the balls going behind the defence, because against Slovenia it will be dangerous,” Santini said on Monday.

The Benfica midfielder was in a class of his own as Slovenia scored three times against Israel with Zahovic setting up all the goals. Still, France have plenty of match-winning stars of their own, and should prove too strong for Slovenia although victory is not vital. They will still qualify with just a draw which would also guarantee Slovenia a playoff place.

French playmaker Zinedine Zidane, who missed Saturday’s match against Cyprus, is still doubtful with a slight thigh injury. Slovenia will have midfielder Miran Pavlin back from suspension probably at the expense of Adem Kapic.

Denmark will also qualify if they beat Romania in Copenhagen in their Group Two clash. Denmark won 5-2 in Romania earlier in the competition and another victory will clinch top place.

Denmark were without a match on Saturday but can take nothing for granted against Romania who have striker Adrian Mutu in blistering form.

There is also plenty at stake in Prague where the Czech Republic play The Netherlands who have Ruud Van Nistelrooy back after suspension.

The Czechs beat Belarus 3-1 on Saturday while the Dutch beat Austria by the same score. Outright victory for one or the other will guarantee them first place in Group Three.

Sweden will also be through if they win their Group Four match in Poland and Hungary drop points in Latvia. The Swedes had a relatively easy workout on Saturday with a 5-0 win over San Marino.

Bulgaria can also book their tickets from Group Eight if they win in Andorra as expected and Croatia fail to beat Belgium in Brussels.

Italy, who chalked up their seventh successive victory on Saturday with an ultimately comprehensive 4-0 win over Wales, will also be through if they win in Serbia & Montenegro and Wales fail to beat Finland.

Italy are expected to field a largely unchanged side. Francesco Totti is still recovering from injury, which means Saturday’s hattrick hero Filippo Inzaghi will keep his place up front alongside Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero.

Lastly, Switzerland will seal top spot in Group 10 if they win in Russia.

Elsewhere, the likes of England and Germany can take big steps towards qualifying with victories on Wednesday.

England will go to the top of Group Seven a point clear of Turkey with just the decider in Istanbul to come, unless Liechtenstein cause the biggest upset for decades with a draw or even a victory at Old Trafford.

Germany will also knock Iceland off the top of Group Five if they beat Scotland in Dortmund, but they will need to show an improvement after they drew 0-0 in Iceland on Saturday.

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