England's coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, has uncontroversially identified France, Portugal and Holland as the countries he would most like to avoid in this morning's draw in Lisbon for the European Championship finals. It will be possible to meet the Dutch and either the holders or the hosts when Uefa dignitaries, including the winning Euro 2000 captain, Laurent Blanc, perform the usual over-complicated ceremony.
Eriksson said of France: "Technically, tactically and physically they are in top form, as they showed recently against Germany [winning 3-0]. Playing at home will be a big advantage for Portugal and they will be a real threat. Their style of playing is very fluid, very skilful. In many ways they are like South Americans, especially Brazil. They have the most technically gifted side in the whole championships."
Watching Holland demolish Scotland 6-0 in Amsterdam, he was impressed with two "wonderful" young players, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder. "What is for sure is that whichever group they are in will be a very difficult one indeed."
The peculiar ranking system has, if anything, helped England by placing them among only the second seeds. This second group, none of whom they can be drawn with when the 16 finalists are split into four groups of four, also contains Italy, Spain and Germany. That constitutes a stronger quartet than the four top seeds in "Pot A", among whom Portugal and France are joined by Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Seedings are decided on qualifying matches only for this tournament and for the last World Cup, in both of which the Swedes and the Czechs happened to receive a favourable draw. The latter still did not even qualify for Japan and Korea, but their average number of points per game (2.33) is fractionally better than England's 2.31.
Meeting either of those countries, solid as they are, would clearly be a better result than coming up against the hosts or holders. Holland are the team to avoid from the third tier, or "Pot C", while Switzerland look the strongest of the fourth ranked group. A group of death for Eriksson would therefore bring France, Holland and Switzerland, while the opposite (a group of dearth perhaps?) might offer his native Sweden, Croatia and Latvia as opposition.
France can also field two of the six players he is "most looking forward to watching", which is not, presumably, the same as looking forward to facing. Eriksson's super six are Frenchmen Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo (Portugal), Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic), Raul (Spain) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (Holland).
Draw: Today (BBC2 11.25am) Finals: Saturday 12 June-Sunday 4 July. Venues: Aveiro, Braga, Coimbra, Faro, Guimaraes, Leiria, Lisbon (2), Porto (2). Quarter-finals: 24 June (Lisbon), 25 June (Lisbon), 26 June (Faro), 27 June (Porto). Semi-finals: 30 June (Lisbon), 1 July (Porto). Final: 4 July (Lisbon).
Tickets and odds
Tickets: €35 to €270 (www.euro2004.com).
Odds (William Hill): 100-30 France, 11-2 Italy, 6-1 Portugal, 7 England, Holland, Spain, 9 Czech Republic, 14 Germany, 25 Denmark, Sweden, 50 Greece, 66 Bulgaria, Croatia, Russia, Switzerland, 200 Latvia.
1960 USSR, 1964 Spain, 1968 Italy, 1972 West Germany, 1976 Czechoslovakia, 1980 West Germany, 1984 France, 1988 Holland, 1992 Denmark, 1996 Germany, 2000 France.
The dangerous dozen, by Steve Tongue
Pot A: Portugal, France, Sweden, Cz Rep.
B: Italy, Spain, England, Germany.
C: Holland, Croatia, Russia, Denmark.
D: Bulgaria, Switzerland, Greece, Latvia.
The golden generation have ended up a little tarnished, without a trophy since winning two World Youth Cups. Fernando Couto (34), Luis Figo (31) and Rui Costa (31) remain, but Brazilian coach "Big Phil" Scolari is otherwise looking to bright young attackers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma and Hugo Viana.
Record v England: P19 W3 D7 L9.
After a dreadful World Cup with an unfit Zinedine Zidane, weary team-mates and unsuitable tactics, France were the only side to win all eight qualifying matches, albeit against undemanding opposition. David Trezeguet now has Thierry Henry alongside him, with youngsters such as Djibril Cissé standing by. Clear favourites.
Record v England: P25 W5 D4 L16.
Sweden won their qualifying group after an unpromising start, with draws against Latvia and Hungary hinting at a lack of quality. A defence built around Aston Villa's Olof Mellberg conceded only three goals in eight games, and the powerful Zlatan Ibrahmovic has taken on the mantle of principal goalscorer since Henrik Larsson's unfortunately timed international retirement.
Record v England: P19 W5 D8 L6.
Easily underrated, the veteran Karel Bruckner's amalgam of youth and experience won seven and drew one of their qualifying games, finishing above Holland by taking four points off them. Of the Euro 96 runners-up, Pavel Nedved (right), Karel Poborsky and Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer remain, backed up by the latter's club-mate Milan Baros and the gifted Tomas Rosicky.
Record v England: P13 W2 D3 L8.
The recent 6-0 drubbing of Scotland in that play-off second leg proved Holland's quality, as well as the fact that they cannot do without Ruud van Nistelrooy, whether or not the less reliable Patrick Kluivert plays alongside him. A month together in the summer will give them all abundant time to fall out with former Rangers coach Dick Advocaat or each other, but no country will want to draw them in the same group.
Record v England: P15 W4 D6 L5
Dado Prso is Croatia's new hero after scoring in each leg of the play-off against Slovenia, who seemed to hold an advantage after drawing the away match in Zagreb; that followed his four goals in Monaco's record 8-3 Champions' League defeat of Deportivo la Coruña. The team are still in transition after a miserable 2002 World Cup.
Record v England: P2 W0 D1 L1.
Too good for Ireland and then Wales in the competition so far, they ought to have won their group but suffered a blip in the middle with defeats by Albania and Georgia. Victor Onopko is still holding the defence together, as he proved with a masterly performance in Cardiff, and Moscow Dynamo's Dmitri Bulykin has emerged as a goalscorer.
Record v England: P12 W3 D4 L5.
Squeezed through ahead of Norway, Romania and Bosnia-Herzogovina, then showed up well in beating England 3-2 at Old Trafford, where Thomas Gravesen (right) and Martin Jorgensen were outstanding in midfield. Morten Olsen's flexible 4-2-3-1 formation uses pace down the flanks through Jesper Gronkjaer and Dennis Rommedahl, with the lively Ebbe Sand ahead of them.
Record v England: P16 W2 D4 L10.
After missing out on recent tournaments, Bulgaria have come again under the apparently inexperienced coach Plamen Markov, winning their section ahead of Croatia and Belgium with a game to spare. Celtic's Stilian Petrov is an important cog in midfield, behind Bayer Leverkusen's Dimitar Berbatov, who racked up 15 goals in his first 25 internationals.
Record v England: P8 W0 D4 L4.
Two victories over Ireland were crucial in pushing the Swiss to the head of Group 10, making up for a heavy 4-1 away defeat by Russia. That resulted in automatic qualification for the finals and their first appearance in a major competition since Euro 96, when they held eventual semi-finalists England to a draw in the opening game. Stephane Chapuisat, Alexander Frei and Hakan Yakin all have good scoring records at a high level.
Record v England: P18 W3 D4 L11.
Not since 1980 have the Greeks been seen at the finals, but Germany's Otto Rehhagel inspired one of the best results in their history in June this year, when Spain were beaten 1-0 in Zaragoza by a goal from Bolton's Stelios Giannakopoulos. Eight goals scored and four conceded in the eight qualifying games suggests they will not be exciting.
Record v England: P8 W0 D2 L6.
The rank outsiders sprang a huge surprise by beating Turkey 1-0 in the home leg of the play-offs, then retrieving a 2-0 deficit to draw in Istanbul. Maris Verpakovskis scored in each game, as well as the crucial group win away to Sweden (who had already qualified). Arsenal fans will watch in awe as Igors Stepanovs takes to the big stage.
Record v England: no previous games.