By Rupert Metcalf
THE LONG road to the finals of the 2000 European Championship began a week before this year's World Cup. Allan Simonsen's Faroe Islands side were trounced in Tallinn on 4 June, losing 4-0 to Estonia. There have been two more qualifiers since then, but the serious action begins this weekend, when 21 international matches across the continent, from Stockholm to Sarajevo, will begin the process of deciding which countries will compete for the European title in Belgium and the Netherlands in the summer of 2000.
With the co-hosts qualifying automatically, there will only be 14 places available at the finals. There are 49 teams competing for those places. With five groups of five teams and four groups of six, the qualifiers will be the nine group winners, the second-placed team with the best record, and the winners of four two-legged play-off matches between the eight other group runners-up.
If teams finishing equal on points after playing all their group matches, the following criteria (in the order listed) will be used to determine ranking:
1 Greater number of points obtained in the matches between the teams in question.
2 Goal difference resulting from the matches between the teams in question.
3 Greater number of goals scored away from home in the matches between the teams in question.
4 If still level: Goal difference from all qualifiers.
5 Greater number of goals scored in all qualifiers.
6 Greater number of goals scored away from home in all qualifiers.
7 Fair Play conduct of the teams.
8 Drawing of lots by Uefa Euro 2000 Committee.
When the second-placed teams are ranked to determine the teams to qualify for the final round or the play-off matches, only the results obtained against the teams placed first, third and fourth in the group shall be considered. The following criteria (in the order listed) shall be used to determine the ranking for the second-placed teams:
1 Number of points obtained in the matches against the teams placed first, third and fourth in the group.
2 Goal difference resulting from these matches.
3 Greater number of goals scored in these matches.
4 Greater number of goals scored away from home in these matches.
5 Fair Play conduct of the teams from all the group matches.
Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Wales, Belarus
OF THE two teams that participated in France 98, the Danes will have a more familiar line-up in Minsk today. The Laudrup brothers have retired but Peter Schmeichel will still be in goal and Marc Rieper, Jens Hogh, Jan Heintze, Thomas Helveg, Peter Moller and the oustanding wide midfielder, Martin Jorgensen, are all still around. The newcomers include Soren Andersen, the Bristol City striker.
Italy's new coach, Dino Zoff, has made big changes. Pagliuca, Costacurta, Di Matteo, Casiraghi, Zola and Ravanelli have all been excluded. Among those called up are the Udinese midfield pair, Jonathan Bachini and Giulano Giannichedda, and the Atletico Madrid defender Michele Serena. Paolo Maldini will miss today's game against Wales at Anfield through injury.
With Italy rebuilding, the Danes may well come out on top in this section. The Swiss look short of top-class players while Wales, sadly, and Belarus will almost certainly make up the numbers.
Prediction: 1 Denmark; 2 Italy.
Today: Wales v Italy; Belarus v Denmark
10 Oct: Italy v Switzerland; Denmark v Wales
13 Oct: Wales v Belarus; Switzerland v Denmark
1999: 27 Mar: Belarus v Switzerland; Denmark v Italy
31 Mar: Switzerland v Wales; Italy v Belarus
5 June: Italy v Wales; Denmark v Belarus
9 June: Switzerland v Italy; Wales v Denmark
4 Sept: Belarus v Wales; Denmark v Switzerland
8 Sept: Switzerland v Belarus; Italy v Denmark
9 Oct: Wales v Switzerland; Belarus v Italy
Georgia, Albania, Greece, Slovenia, Norway, Latvia
BY NO means the strongest group. Norway look the best of an average lot, while second place should be filled by Georgia or Greece.
Norway's new coach, Nils Johan Semb, has discarded eight players from the under-achieving World Cup squad, including Gunnar Halle and Dan Eggen. Petter Rudi of Sheffield Wednesday is one of the fresh faces, while Daniel Berg Hestad of Molde and Rosenborg Trondheim's Andre Bergdolmo are two of the untried home-based men.
Greece are also under new leadership - they have hired the experience of the former Romania coach, Anghel Iordanescu. He can call on Nikos Dabizas, Theo Zagorakis and Vassilis Borbokis, who all earn their living in England. Georgia's main man will once again be Georgi Kinkladze, now with Ajax.
Prediction: 1 Norway; 2 Greece.
Today: Georgia v Albania
Tomorrow: Greece v Slovenia; Norway v Latvia
10 Oct: Albania v Greece; Slovenia v Norway; Latvia v Georgia
14 Oct: Norway v Albania; Greece v Georgia; Slovenia v Latvia
1999: 27 Mar: Greece v Norway; Georgia v Slovenia
31 Mar: Slovenia v Albania; Latvia v Greece
28 Apr: Albania v Latvia; Georgia v Norway
30 May: Norway v Georgia
5 June: Albania v Norway; Georgia v Greece; Latvia v Slovenia
9 June: Albania v Slovenia; Greece v Latvia
4 Sept: Norway v Greece; Latvia v Albania; Slovenia v Georgia
8 Sept: Greece v Albania; Norway v Slovenia; Georgia v Latvia
9 Oct: Albania v Georgia; Slovenia v Greece; Latvia v Norway
Finland, Moldova, Turkey, Northern Ireland, Germany
IF THE holders cannot qualify from this section, Berti Vogts' reign as Germany's coach will surely end. He will be relying on some little-known names to protect his reputation: Mustafa Dogan, Michael Ballack, Stefan Beinlich (once of Aston Villa), Marco Reich, Oliver Neuville and Paulo Rink are all in his squad for two friendlies this week.
The Turks will be hopeful of qualifying for their second successive European finals. Hami Mandirali, of Germany's Schalke 04, is their only foreign-based player, and they will again rely on Hakan Sukur for goals.
Under the wily Lawrie McMenemy, Northern Ireland will be chasing second place, but Finland will also fancy their chances. They also have an experienced coach in Richard Moller-Nielsen, who took Denmark to the European title in 1992, and in Jari Litmanen they have a top striker.
Prediction: 1 Germany; 2 Turkey.
Today: Finland v Moldova; Turkey v Northern Ireland
10 Oct: Turkey v Germany; Northern Ireland v Finland
14 Oct: Moldova v Germany; Turkey v Finland
18 Nov: Northern Ireland v Moldova
1999: 27 Mar: Northern Ireland v Germany; Turkey v Moldova
31 Mar: Germany v Finland; Moldova v Northern Ireland
4 June: Germany v Moldova
5 June: Finland v Turkey
9 June: Moldova v Finland
4 Sept: Finland v Germany; Northern Ireland v Turkey
8 Sept: Germany v Northern Ireland; Moldova v Turkey
9 Oct: Germany v Turkey; Finland v Northern Ireland
Armenia, Andorra, Ukraine, Russia, Iceland, France
THE WORLD champions should have the class to top this group, but it will not be easy. If, without the suspended Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly, France slip up in Iceland today, both Russia and Ukraine will sense an opportunity.
France's new coach, Roger Lemerre, has discarded Newcastle's Stephane Guivarc'h and, like his predecessor Aime Jacquet, ignored Arsenal's Nicolas Anelka in his search for a regular scorer. Bordeaux's Lilian Laslandes and Tony Vairelles of Lens will be given their chance up front.
Ukraine, meeting Russia for the first time today, can boast the world- class Dynamo Kiev strikers, Andrei Shevcehnko and Sergei Rebrov. Russia's new coach, Anatoly Byshovets, has recalled several experienced players including Andrei Kanchelskis, who was born in Ukraine and can expect a hostile reception today.
Prediction: 1 France; 2 Ukraine.
Today: Armenia v Andorra; Ukraine v Russia; Iceland v France
10 Oct: Andorra v Ukraine; Russia v France; Armenia v Iceland
14 Oct: Ukraine v Armenia; France v Andorra; Iceland v Russia
1999: 27 Mar: Andorra v Iceland; France v Ukraine; Armenia v Russia
31 Mar: Ukraine v Iceland; Russia v Andorra; France v Armenia
5 June: Ukraine v Andorra; France v Russia; Iceland v Armenia
9 June: Andorra v France; Russia v Iceland; Armenia v Ukraine
4 Sept: Ukraine v France; Iceland v Andorra; Russia v Armenia
8 Sept: Andorra v Russia; Iceland v Ukraine; Armenia v France
9 Oct: France v Iceland; Russia v Ukraine; Andorra v Armenia
England, Bulgaria, Sweden, Poland, Luxembourg
A TIGHT group, with only one weak team. If England reproduce the form they showed against South American opposition at France 98 they should prevail, but Bulgaria, Poland and Sweden are all tricky opponents.
Bulgaria's coach Hristo Bonev has dispensed with four veterans - Trifon Ivanov, Emil Kostadinov, Ljuboslav Penev and Krassimir Balakov - but has retained Hristo Stoichkov, who is now based in Japan. The new strikers, Georgi Ivanov, Ilian Iliev, Doncho Donev and Anton Spassov, are untried.
Poland are a pale shadow of the great side of the 1970s but they have found a promising striker: Miroslaw Trzeciak (nine caps, five goals). The Swedes, as England may find out today, are recovering their form without abandoning all the stalwarts who did well at USA 94. Borussia Monchengladbach's Jorgen Pettersson is the forward most likely to make a name for himself.
Prediction: 1 England; 2 Sweden.
Today: Sweden v England
Tomorrow: Bulgaria v Poland
10 Oct: Poland v Luxembourg; England v Bulgaria
14 Oct: Bulgaria v Sweden; Luxembourg v England
1999: 27 Mar: Sweden v Luxembourg; England v Poland
31 Mar: Luxembourg v Bulgaria; Poland v Sweden
5 June: Poland v Bulgaria; England v Sweden
9 June: Luxembourg v Poland; Bulgaria v England
4 Sept: Sweden v Bulgaria; England v Luxembourg
8 Sept: Luxembourg v Sweden; Poland v England
9 Oct: Sweden v Poland
10 Oct: Bulgaria v Luxembourg
Austria, Israel, Cyprus, Spain, San Marino
ANOTHER WEAK section. Spain may have problems translating ability into results, but they should win this group at a canter.
Chelsea's Albert Ferrer is one of six players from Spain's World Cup squad dumped by the resilient coach, Javier Clemente. He has not found any new strikers, though, so Raul, Kiko, Alfonso and Fernando Morientes will again bear the burden of expectation up front.
Austria were poor at the World Cup and look little better now. Andreas Herzog, their playmaker, is injury prone and Anton Polster, their only reliable forward, has retired. Harald Cerny, of 1860 Munich, will become, coach Herbert Prohaska hopes, Polster's successor as a regular scorer.
Israel, with an under-rated squad, have had encouraging wins recently against Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania and Argentina. They could spring a surprise.
Prediction: 1 Spain; 2 Israel.
Today: Austria v Israel; Cyprus v Spain
10 Oct: Cyprus v Austria; San Marino v Israel
14 Oct: Israel v Spain; San Marino v Austria
18 Nov: San Marino v Cyprus
1999: 10 Feb: Cyprus v San Marino
27 Mar: Spain v Austria
28 Mar: Israel v Cyprus
31 Mar: San Marino v Spain
Apr 28: Austria v San Marino
5 June: Spain v San Marino
6 June: Israel v Austria
4 Sept: Austria v Spain
5 Sept: Cyprus v Israel
8 Sept: Spain v Cyprus; Israel v San Marino
9 Oct: Spain v Israel
10 Oct: Austria v Cyprus
Romania, Portugal, Slovakia, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Azerbaijan
ROMANIA QUALIFIED for France 98 with ease and should do so again for Euro 2000. Portugal, and maybe Slovakia, are the only teams capable of challenging them.
Victor Piturca, Romania's new coach, must replace Gheorghe Hagi but Gheorghe Popescu, Viorel Moldovan and Adrian Ilie are still available and in form. Portugal's squad also has a familiar look, with Vitor Baia, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto and Luis Figo all regulars. The striker Ricardo Sa Pinto is back after a year's ban for assaulting the previous coach, Artur Jorge. Slovakia are improving all the time and should be better than Hungary.
Prediction: 1 Romania; 2 Portugal.
2 Sept: Romania 7 Liechtenstein 0
Today: Slovakia v Azerbaijan
Tomorrow: Hungary v Portugal
10 Oct: Portugal v Romania; Liechtenstein v Slovakia; Azerbaijan v Hungary
14 Oct: Slovakia v Portugal; Hungary v Romania; Liechtenstein v Azerbaijan
1999: 26 Mar: Portugal v Azerbaijan
27 Mar: Romania v Slovakia; Hungary v Liechtenstein
31 Mar: Slovakia v Hungary; Liechtenstein v Portugal; Azerbaijan v Romania
5 June: Portugal v Slovakia; Romania v Hungary; Azerbaijan v Liechtenstein
9 June: Hungary v Slovakia; Portugal v Liechtenstein; Romania v Azerbaijan
3 Sept: Azerbaijan v Portugal
4 Sept: Slovakia v Romania; Liechtenstein v Hungary
8 Sept: Romania v Portugal; Slovakia v Liechtenstein; Hungary v Azerbaijan
9 Oct: Liechtenstein v Romania; Azerbaijan v Slovakia
10 Oct: Portugal v Hungary
Croatia, Republic of Ireland, Macedonia, Malta, Yugoslavia
THE BALKAN conflict between Yugoslavia, Croatia and Macedonia will dominate this group, with the Republic of Ireland unlikely to come close to qualifying despite their emerging young talent.
Despite Croatia's better record at France 98, Yugoslavia are a younger team and may have the mental strength to come out on top in the games against their neighbours. Their new coach, Milan Zivadinovic, is retaining most of the World Cup squad but is also introducing promising newcomers such as the strikers Ilija Ivic and Nikola Lazetic.
Croatia, who will be without three strikers (Suker, Boksic and Vlaovic) in Dublin today due to injuries, have turned to players from Croatia Zagreb like Silvio Maric and Mario Cvitanovic to augment their squad.
Prediction: 1 Yugoslavia; 2 Croatia.
Today: Republic of Ireland v Croatia
Tomorrow: Macedonia v Malta
10 Oct: Malta v Croatia; Yugoslavia v Republic of Ireland
14 Oct: Republic of Ireland v Malta; Croatia v Macedonia
18 Nov: Malta v Macedonia
1999: 10 Feb: Malta v Yugoslavia
27 March: Macedonia v Republic of Ireland; Yugoslavia v Croatia
31 March: Croatia v Malta; Yugoslavia v Macedonia
5 June: Macedonia v Croatia; Republic of Ireland v Yugoslavia
9 June: Yugoslavia v Malta
4 Sept: Croatia v Republic of Ireland
8 Sept: Malta v Republic of Ireland; Macedonia v Yugoslavia
10 Oct: Croatia v Yugoslavia; Republic of Ireland v Macedonia
Bosnia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Lithuania, Scotland
THE CZECHS and the Scots should stage a private contest for the top two places, with only Bosnia likely to be good enough to worry either of them.
Scotland should, as always, be hard to beat and full of commitment - and that may be good enough to earn them first place. The Czech Republic, unexpected runners-up at Euro 96, had a dreadful World Cup campaign and their coach, Jozef Chovanec, must rely on the main men from that English summer - the likes of Karel Poborsky, Radek Bejbl, Pavel Nedved and Jiri Nemec - rediscovering their international appetites.
Bosnia are by no means the worst side to come out of the former Yugoslavia, and they have three good strikers in Elvir Bolic, Meho Kodro and Elvir Baljic.
Prediction: 1 Scotland; 2 Czech Rep.
4 June: Estonia 5 Faroe Islands 0
19 Aug: Bosnia 1 Faroe Islands 0
Today: Bosnia v Estonia; Lithuania v Scotland
Tomorrow: Faroe Islands v Czech Republic
10 Oct: Bosnia v Czech Republic; Lithuania v Faroe Islands; Scotland v Estonia
14 Oct: Lithuania v Bosnia; Scotland v Faroe Islands; Czech Republic v Estonia
1999: 27 March: Czech Republic v Lithuania; Scotland v Bosnia
31 March: Lithuania v Estonia; Scotland v Czech Republic
5 June: Bosnia v Lithuania; Estonia v Czech Republic; Faroe Islands v Scotland
9 June: Estonia v Lithuania; Faroe Islands v Bosnia; Czech Republic v Scotland
4 Sept: Bosnia v Scotland; Faroe Islands v Estonia; Lithuania v Czech Republic
8 Sept: Czech Republic v Bosnia; Faroe Islands v Lithuania; Estonia v Scotland
9 Oct: Estonia v Bosnia; Czech Republic v Faroe Islands; Scotland v Lithuania