Smith stays upbeat after Scots land in toughest group of all

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The Independent Online

Even before yesterday's draw for the Euro 2008 qualifying stages, Scotland's manager Walter Smith said that reaching the tournament proper would be a greater achievement than taking Rangers to six straight Scottish titles in 1997, as part of their historic "nine in a row".

If Scotland reach the main event, it will be as great a feat as any Scotland manager has ever achieved. Also in Group B are France, Italy, Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia and the Faroe Islands, a mix of established powers, those who have tripped up Scotland before and the unknown.

Jean-Pierre Escalettes, the president of the French FA said: "It's a beautiful group. We'll have some very nice games." Italy's manager Marcello Lippi said it would be "hard-fought".

Smith said: "We have to be on top of our game to hope to qualify. It looks like it's the toughest group. But we never say never. We are improving all the time and perhaps we could produce a shock."

Scotland have lost five of six games with France in the past 22 years, their only victory coming at home in qualifying for the 1990 World Cup. In their last meeting, in March 2002 in Berti Vogts' first game in charge, they were thrashed 5-0 in Paris. Scotland have beaten Italy only once in eight meetings, in 1965, although they did draw 1-1 at home in qualifying for this year's World Cup.

Wales and the Republic of Ireland have also been handed a daunting draw, landing in the same group as Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. With only the top two qualifying, Cyprus and San Marino's presence will be of little comfort, yet the Wales manager John Toshack predicted his side would qualify for the tournament in Austria and Switzerland.

"If you don't go into a competition with the belief that you can be successful, then what's the point?" he said. "You never know what can happen and I expect us to go through.

"Germany would accept that they don't have the great players they used to have," he added.

Steve Staunton, the new Republic of Ireland manager, was equally upbeat about the draw. "I can't wait to get started," he said. "We always knew it would be tough but nobody is unbeatable."

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