By Luke Williams
With third-placed Austria suffering a shock 1-0 loss against Moldova on Saturday, UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying Group 3 looks increasingly like a two-horse race between the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.
Dutch take a rest
Indeed, the upcoming showdown between the two sides on 10 September already looks like deciding which country will achieve automatic qualification for next year's finals. In the meantime neither can afford any slip-ups - so with the Dutch taking a rest on Wednesday after their 2-0 victory against Belarus, the Czechs will be determined to move level with their rivals on 13 points by beating the Moldovans in Olomouc.
Czechs at full strength
The good news for Czech coach Karel Brückner is that forward Jan Koller has been passed fit after minor surgery on a leg injury. The BV Borussia Dortmund player came through a training session on Saturday unscathed. "The doctors gave him only a two per cent chance of being fit for the game just surgery, but his recovery went incredibly quickly," Brückner said.
Koller 'ready to play'
I am fully fit and definitely ready to play," added Koller, who has scored three of his 24 international goals in this campaign. The Czech Republic's only injury doubt concerns forward Štepán Vachoušek, who was originally added to the squad as cover for Koller before injuring his knee in training.
Moldovans on high
The Czechs are unbeaten in 14 games, stretching back over 18 months and incorporating a 2-0 victory against Moldova in Chisinau last October. They will therefore be strongly favoured to win, but Moldova are on a real high after Viorel Frunza's goal secured that sensational win against Austria in Tiraspol - and their first points of the campaign.
"We played better than Austria and deserved our victory," said coach Viktor Pasulko. "The match once again showed that we are going in the right direction. We did a lot of good work and our team is improving constantly. Soon or later we will achieve positive results. It will be very difficult against the Czech Republic because they are one of the best teams in Europe. However, we will do our best."
Aleksandr Covalenco, who missed the Austria game through suspension, is available for selection but Serghei Clescenco and Serghei Dadu are injured and will almost certainly not play, while Yuri Miterev is a definite absentee.
'Two steps back'
In the night's other game Austria need to beat Belarus to regain some pride after losing to Moldova. Coach Hans Krankl has attempted to quell the furore surrounding his side's weekend defeat. "This is no disgrace but a defeat that hurts," he said. "We had enough chances to win two games but as happens quite often in football, if you are not able to score you concede." Midfield player Markus Schopp added: " The problem is whenever we take a step forward, then we take two steps back in the next game."
Back at home
With ten defeats in their last 17 away games Austria will be relieved to be back on home territory in Innsbruck, although a defeat would see Belarus move level with them on six points. With their Under-17 and Under-19 sides achieving excellent results lately, and the co-hosting of the 2008 UEFA European Championship also on the horizon, the future of Austrian football is far from bleak - but a positive display and result is needed on Wednesday to raise morale.
Additional reporting by Pawel Dimow and Ladislav Josef
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