By Adrian Clarke
Iván Helguera is confident that Spain can keep alive their slim hopes of automatic UEFA EURO 2004™ qualification with victory against Group 6 rivals Ukraine on Wednesday.
The Spaniards need just a point from the game in Elche to ensure a play-off berth, but a win would heap pressure on surprise group leaders Greece, who would then need to beat Northern Ireland in their final match to guarantee their place in next year's finals.
The 28-year-old Real Madrid CF star - who misses the game in Elche with a cartilage injury - is well aware how costly the home defeat by Greece and goalless draw in Northern Ireland have been but refuses to admit that second place is the best Spain can hope for.
"Our mission is to beat Ukraine and Armenia and then hope for Greece to make a blunder against Northern Ireland next month," Helguera told uefa.com. "
We have pressure on us to win, but the Greeks will feel it too if they need three points from their final match.
"The team is playing for its own future on Wednesday because failure is not acceptable. A defeat would make our hopes of qualifying for Portugal very complicated and none of us wants that. We were fortunate that Ukraine could only draw with Northern Ireland on Saturday, and now we have to make it count."
Helguera's absence on Wednesday is a big blow to Spain. However, they showed excellent form beating Portugal 3-0 in Guimaraes in last weekend's friendly. And, according to Helguera, that morale-boosting win for Iñaki Sáez's side is sure to give them renewed confidence ahead of this all-important qualifier.
"I'm very confident in my team-mates and in our coach," he said. "The performance in Portugal was fantastic and I know that we can produce that same good work again. The team will play this game as if it is the final of EURO 2004, so I promise the supporters that we will be victorious.
"Ukraine are difficult opponents, though, and I suppose they will come here full of optimism after leading us for almost 80 minutes when we last met [in a 2-2 draw in March]. I didn't play in that game, but my team-mates told me they were surprised at how good they were, so we must not take things for granted."
Wednesday will be Ukraine's final qualifier and their only chance of winning a place in the play-offs is to beat Spain and hope that Sáez's side lose away against Armenia in their final match on 11 October.
Northern Ireland dream
Leonid Buryak's side's hopes of automatic qualification were extinguished after they could only draw 0-0 against Northern Ireland in Donetsk. However, Northern Ireland still have much to prove in their home game against Armenia on Wednesday, even though they are currently bottom of the group.
Sammy McIlroy's side have not won a game in qualifying and, perhaps more surprisingly, have yet to score a goal. "
We have now got to be looking to beat Armenia after the way we played in Ukraine," said McIlroy. "It was a great performance and now we have to take it a step further and get our first win in the group."
Breaking those ducks would improve morale, and as they travel to Greece for their final game on 11 October, Spanish supporters will be hoping that they can rediscover their goalscoring touch.
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