Vol. 5 Num 295 Sat. March 26, 2005  

FIFA Fussball-Weltmeisterschaft Deutschland 2006

It's tight in Europe

Europe's big guns play World Cup 2006 qualifiers this Satur-day in the knowledge they have little room for error with just one automatic group qualifying spot up for grabs.

There is only a point separating the strong quartet of The Netherlands, Romania, Finland and the Czech Republic in Group 1.

The Dutch, leading on goal difference, face a testing trip away to second-placed Romania and coach Marco van Basten has called up newcomers Hedwiges Maduro and Ryan Babel of Ajax for the clash.

Martijn Meerdink of AZ Alkmaar was a late withdrawal with a serious knee injury, but van Basten has been boosted by the return to fitness of Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy, Chelsea's Arjen Robben, and PSV duo Wilfred Bouma and Phillip Cocu.

The fourth-placed Czechs host Finland without injured striker Jan Koller, with both sides on nine points and looking to put pressure on the top two.

In Group 2, Ukraine enjoy a six-point lead and sit out this round of matches, but second-placed Greece, the European champions, face a tough away trip to Georgia.

Turkey, the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists who failed to qualify for Euro 2004, are lying third in Group 2, eight points behind Ukraine albeit with a game in hand.

Slovakia have a chance to draw level with Group 3 pacesetters Portugal, who hold a three-point advantage over their rivals with an extra game under their belts.

The Slovaks travel to Estonia, one of three teams along with Russia and Latvia on seven points.

In Group 4, three teams are locked in top place on eight points. With all to play for, Ireland travel to Israel and France are practically obliged to win against the Swiss after being held to draws at home by two of their direct rivals.

France, who have only beaten the Faroe Islands and Cyprus so far, travel to Israel four days after their encounter with the Swiss.

Group 5 sees frontrunners Italy host winless Scotland without the dropped Alessandro del Piero and injured defender Alessandro Nesta. Roma striker Vincenzo Montella, the leading scorer in Italy's Serie A with 19 goals, was a late withdrawal with an ankle injury.

England are in pole position in Group 6, and play home country rivals Northern Ireland at Old Trafford.

England's Crystal Palace striker Andrew Johnson was ruled out Thursday with an ankle injury, his place being taken by Birmingham's Emile Heskey.

"I guess people on paper will say we should win the game but we have got to earn the right to win, we've got to go out there and play as a team and get the three points we need," Manchester United centreback Rio Ferdinand said.

"There is a confident air about the team - we've got the players individually but individuals don't win tournaments."

Second-placed Poland, just a point adrift of England, host winless bottom side Azerbaijan. Austria, third on five points, visit Wales for a match both teams need to win to keep their qualifying hopes alive.

Wales have not qualified for a major football finals since the 1958 World Cup and new coach John Toshack admitted:

The three top sides in Group 7 all have the weekend off, but strugglers Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina face off with neither side having managed to yet register a victory.

In Group 8, goal-happy leaders Sweden travel to second-placed Bulgaria, who have a game in hand, while third-placed Croatia travel to Iceland.