Formidable French bar England's path

Having failed to kiss and make-up at Downing Street last week, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac were yesterday given something else to disagree on after France and England were drawn together in the European Championship finals. Next year's commemoration of the Entente Cordiale's centennial could be strained.

France will be England's first opponents in Group B, which also contains Croatia and Switzerland. The pair will meet on the evening of Sunday 13 June, in Lisbon's Estadio da Luz, the venue for the final 21 days later.

Although the prospect of playing the holders and favourites is a daunting one, it was a good draw for England. Sven Goran Eriksson smiled when Eusebio plucked his team's name out of a glass bowl in Lisbon's Pavilhao Atlantico, and though the smile faded when France completed the section three minutes later, he admitted he was still "pleased".

One reason is that, should both teams qualify, they could not meet again until the final. "That is good," Eriksson said, "but we could play Portugal instead." The hosts, or Spain, would be England's probable quarter-final opposition. On form Italy would be the most likely semi-final opponents.

Eriksson was delighted with the schedule which means England could go all the way to the final while spending only one night away from their Lisbon base. That will be in the medieval city of Coimbra, for their second match, against Switzerland, on Thursday 17 June. The Croatia game is back at the Luz on Monday evening, 21 June. Any putative quarter-final would be in Lisbon and, should England have qualified behind France, so too the semi-final.

England were originally due to play Croatia in Coimbra but Uefa, mindful of the problems surrounding England versus Germany in Charleroi at the last tournament, reserved the right to switch venues for security reasons. Coimbra holds 35,000 fans, the Luz 70,000. Similarly the combustible Germany-Netherlands tie in Group D was moved from the small fishing port of Aveiro to Porto.

The draw delivered two other notable group matches. In Group A Portugal, who will open the tournament against Greece in Porto on 12 June, were paired with Spain, a combination which brought gasps from the audience.

The customary "group of death" label will be applied to Group D. As well as the Dutch and Germans this contains the Czech Republic, who headed the former in qualifying. Latvia make up the group - some welcome to football's top table for the tiny Baltic republic.

"That is the most difficult group," Eriksson said, "but we must also respect everyone. France is the big, big favourite, we will have to be ready very early. Croatia are technically very good with lots of pace and the Swiss will be very organised."

England, famously, were very ready when they opened the 1982 World Cup against France, Bryan Robson scoring after 27 seconds in a 3-1 win. More recently the last competitive match, in Euro 92, and last friendly, in Paris in 2000, were drawn. England beat Croatia as recently as August, winning a friendly 3-1 in Ipswich, though the scoreline was flattering. Croatia troubled England with their effortless technique and fluid movement. The Swiss, who knocked out the Republic of Ireland in qualifying, held England to a dull draw in the opening game of Euro 96 and again, in 1998, in Berne.

Within minutes of the draw the psychological games began. Kobi Kuhn, the Switzerland coach, described meeting England and France as "a great honour". Otto Baric, his Croatian equivalent, said: "We have at least two opponents better than us in England and France." Jacques Santini, the France coach, said: "Mr Eriksson has done very good work with England." He added: "England will be a derby for us, especially with so many French players in the Premier League."

Like Eriksson, Santini admitted he was concerned about the Premiership's demands on players. "The physical and mental shape of the team is absolutely crucial in this tournament," he said. "No team can go through a tournament without leaders but in Korea [in 2002] we had tired leaders and this was one reason for France's unsuccessful World Cup."

Eriksson added: "England-France could be two tired teams. With everyone fit we don't need to be afraid of anyone but to win a big trophy you need luck and fresh players."

He also spoke for the first time about the FA's offer of a new contract. He was "flattered and honoured" but it was "much too early to say yes or no". The FA stressed there is no deadline but Eriksson said he would probably decide before the summer. He also dismissed renewed speculation of an agreement with Chelsea. One Sunday tabloid claimed he would be signing a four-year, £18m deal. "How much?" asked Eriksson. "£18m! I should sign at once."

No consideration of England's chances would be complete without a reference to the threat of hooligan-provoked expulsion but David Davies, the FA's executive director, said he had "guarded optimism".

He added: "There is no tradition of difficulty between the Portuguese and English. It is a warm and hospitable country. It could be a great festival which our supporters will want to be part of."

ENGLAND'S SCHEDULE

EURO 2004 GROUP B
France, England, Switzerland, Croatia
Sun 13 June: v France (Lisbon, Estadio da Luz, 1945)
Thurs 17 June: v Switzerland (Coimbra, 1945)
Mon 21 June: v Croatia (Lisbon, Estadio da Luz, 1945)

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