The road to Portugal and the EURO 2004™ finals has begun with holders France off to a winning start and the Faroe Islands earning a shock result in last night's qualifiers.
In all, fifty nations have been divided into ten groups of five teams. The winners of each group will join the hosts in the finals, along with five winners of play-offs between the second-placed teams. The honour of starting the ball rolling in the 2004 UEFA European Championship went to Christian Jacobsen of the Faroe Islands, who set the day's first game under way.
France, defending the title won a little over two years ago in Rotterdam, had to come from a goal behind in their away match against Cyprus. Yiannakis Okkas's 14th-minute goal stunned the visitors before Djibril Cissé and Sylvain Wiltord gave France the Group 1 victory. Slovenia top the standings though, after an assured 3-0 victory in Malta.
In Toftír, the Faroe Islands raced into a two-goal lead against Scotland thanks to John Petersen's early double. Just as the hosts began to contemplate a famous victory, the Scots battled back for a 2-2 draw with goals from Paul Lambert and Barry Ferguson. Germany took advantage of the draw between their rivals to take command of Group 5 with a 2-0 away victory against Lithuania, unsurprisingly star man Michael Ballack found the net.
Italy and Wales lead the way in Group 9 after each recording impressive 2-0 away victories. The Italians survived a tricky trip to Azerbaijan and came away with all three points after a Tarlan Akhmedov own goal and an Alessandro Del Piero free-kick special. Wales will be even more delighted after their success in Helsinki against Finland. John Hartson and Simon Davies were the goalscorers.
Austria were 2-0 home winners over Moldova after Andreas Herzog scored two first-half penalties. The other Group 3 game saw the Netherlands ease to a 3-0 home victory in Belarus with goals from Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
Turkey fired a warning to England, who drew 1-1 with EURO 2004™ hosts Portugal in a friendly today, by seeing off Slovakia 3-0 at home. Arif Erdem scored twice and made the third for an Istanbul victory that means Turkey now have the undisputed lead in Group 7, with Liechtenstein playing F.Y.R. Macedonia today.
Russia on top
In Group 10, Russia and the Republic of Ireland are expected to be the favourites to fight for first place. The former took an early stranglehold on the group with a rousing 4-2 victory against their rivals in Moscow. Krylya Sovetov Samara forward Andrei Kariaka was a key man along with veteran defender Viktor Onopko against a lively Irish side. The other weekend game in the group sees Switzerland play Georgia today.
Carew the saviour
Scandinavian rivals Norway and Denmark played out a 2-2 draw in Group 2. John Carew was the hero of the hour scoring a dramatic late equaliser to give Norway a point at home. Romania are the early leaders in the group though, striding to an emphatic 3-0 away win against Bosnia-Herzegovina. All three goals coming inside the first half-hour.
There was last-gasp drama in Yerevan too as Armenia's Albert Sargsyan kept his nerve from the penalty spot to earn his side a home 2-2 draw with Ukraine in Group 6. Spain top the pile after a 2-0 victory in Greece, Raúl González and Juan Valerón scoring either side of half-time.
In Group 8, Estonia earned an excellent away point with their scoreless draw in Croatia while Bulgaria were thrilled with a 2-0 triumph away against Belgium. Yugoslavia-born striker Zoran Jankovic and Stilian Petrov scored the goals.
Poland had to wait until the last 15 minutes to break the deadlock in their 2-0 victory in San Marino. That gave them the early edge in Group 4 as fellow favourites Sweden were held to a surprising scoreless draw in Latvia.
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