| Fransesco Totti relaxes before practice in Florence on Thursday. (Reuters)
Paris: England’s rebel footballers, split by controversy and missing the cutting edge of Michael Owen, lead the final scramble for places in Portugal next summer when the final round of Euro 2004 qualifying takes place on Saturday.
Having decided against boycotting their potentially volatile clash against Turkey in Istanbul as the row over the exclusion of Rio Ferdinand raged during the week, England must now focus their attention on the job in hand — securing the point they need to win group seven.
If they do that, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men will avoid the lottery of the play-offs, the fate facing those countries who fail to top any of the ten qualifying groups.
Holders France, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Bulgaria are the only teams already guaranteed places in the finals next year along with hosts Portugal.
That leaves six other top spots still to be decided while runners-up go into the two-legged play-offs.
Attention on Saturday was always destined to be on Istanbul’s Sukru Saracoglu stadium as England and Turkey renew their often hostile rivalry.
The controversial absence of Ferdinand, dropped from the squad after he failed to take a drug test, has only added to the spice.
Eriksson admitted that how the England players cope mentally with the atmosphere in Istanbul will be critical. “The head will be the key — I’m pretty sure about that,” said the Swede.
England’s often notorious fans have been banned from the match and those who do attend have been warned they do so at their own risk. British police fear that 300 hooligans are to defy the travel ban, according to reports.
Tensions between the two countries on the football front have simmered since the stabbing to death of two English fans in Istanbul in 2000.
On Thursday, Turkish police stopped two English supporters from entering the country and sent them back to Britain.
The absence of Liverpool striker Michael Owen, who has not recovered from a shin injury sustained in last week’s defeat to Arsenal, is a huge blow to England as the player has scored 24 goals in 53 England appearances and 16 in 29 matches while Eriksson has been in charge.
Holland, who have already booked a play-off spot as runners-up behind the Czechs in group three, play Moldova but they won’t want to miss out on the finals after suffering the humiliation of failing to qualify for last year’s World Cup.
The losing finalists there, Germany, had been expected to storm through group 5 but a stuttering draw against Iceland leaves them still needing at least a draw against the same opponents to win the group.
Providing Germany achieve that, Scotland would take a playoff spot if they defeat Lithuania at home.
West Ham’s Christian Dailly hopes to play in that match even though he is waiting for the birth of his fourth child.
“Mrs Dailly is hanging on, Mr Dailly told me today. Christian is again showing his feelings for his country and he is an outstanding professional,” said the Scots’ assistant-manager Tommy Burns.
Italy appear to have done the hard part in thrashing long-time group nine leaders Wales 4-0 in the last round of matches and will be expecting to easily beat Azerbaijan to seal top place.
The Welsh, just one point behind, host Serbia and Montenegro knowing that they are guaranteed at least a playoff place — but if Wales win and Italy lose, Wales will qualify for their first international finals since 1958.
Wales star Robert Earnshaw has not written off little Azerbaijan’s chances of creating an upset in Italy.
“We need to win and hopefully there is that little miracle waiting to happen in Italy,” said the Cardiff player.
“Azerbaijan were not that bad at all when we played them, they pulled off a great draw in Serbia and beat them at home, which really helped us.”
Spain are another European giant on uncertain ground as they trail Greece by a point in group six. To avoid the playoffs, Raul and company must win in Armenia and hope the Greeks slip up at home to bottom side Northern Ireland.
Ireland midfielder Matt Holland missed training on Friday with a heavy cold ahead of the crunch qualifier with Switzerland on Saturday. However, team manager Brian Kerr expects him to shake off the virus to play in a game Ireland almost certainly have to win to keep alive their hopes of reaching the finals in Portugal.
“He has a cold and a temperature and he has gone to bed,” said Kerr, who has guided Ireland on an unbeaten run since succeeding Mick McCarthy a year ago.“I think he will be okay. He doesn’t miss many games for his club or his country.”