Scots close in on prize

Ian Ridley analyses the domestic hopes for this week's European internationals
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THE proximity of the prize and the venue for the finals will be the spurs for Scotland on Wednesday when they take on Finland at Hampden Park. Victory should see them qualify for the European Championship in England next summer.

And they should manage it. Finland went to the top of Group Eight in June with a home win over Greece, an achievement matched by the Scots last month, but a 6-0 defeat in Helsinki by Russia three weeks ago saw them deposed.

Indeed, a draw may even be enough for the Scots, who complete their programme against San Marino in November, as their goal difference is now better than that of the Finns, whostill face a trip to Russia, the quality team of the group, as do Greece, the only other team who can deny Scotland.

With Scotland at full strength, much should depend on the composition of the opposition. The Bolton striker Mixu Paatelainen has been injured of late and there is also some doubt over his partner up front, Jari Litmanen of Ajax.

Northern Ireland are likely to see their faint hopes extinguished in Oporto today when they play Portugal. As with Wales, who play Moldova in Cardiff on Wednesday in Bobby Gould's first match as manager, they are more likely to use the game as early preparation for World Cup qualifying, which begins in a year.

Despite losing at home to the Austrians in June, the Republic of Ireland are back in a good position for the return game in Vienna, even though they will be without the injured Phil Babb. Austria's defeat in Latvia last month compensated for Ireland's dropping a point in Liechtenstein in the summer.

Elsewhere, Germany have a crucial match against Georgia while France, at home to Azerbaijan, wait anxiously for the fall-out from the match between their rivals for qualification from Group One, Poland and Romania. The holders, Denmark, travel to Belgium knowing that defeat could lead to a qualifying play-off.

Sweden, semi-finalists on home turf four years ago and third in the World Cup last year, will probably be grateful to match that, and victory in Stockholm over the Group Three leaders Switzerland is essential.