By Richard Sullivan
There have been some dramatic twists in UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying, but perhaps none more than in Group 6.
When Spain welcomed Greece on 7 June, the home team were riding high, unbeaten in their four games having opened with a 2-0 victory in Athens. But Greece came armed with a new sweeper system and a determination that earned them a surprise 1-0 win. Greece then repeated that scoreline against Ukraine and Armenia to take control of the group, while Spain were held by Northern Ireland four days after their solitary defeat.
So from a position where they were cruising to Portugal, Spain now need to win in Armenia on Saturday and hope that Northern Ireland - without a goal in 12 matches - avoid defeat in Athens. Otherwise, they face a qualifying play-off in November. Spain right-back Michel Salgado admits that one bad week has derailed their campaign.
One bad week
"It is unfortunate we are in the position we are in, because I think we were unlucky to have had one bad week," he told uefa.com. "When we played Greece and Northern Ireland, this was not the real Spain. I think this bad patch happened because it was so close to the end of the Spanish season.
Nobody in the squad is happy to be in the situation we are in."
Spain have not missed a major tournament since EURO 92, and they have finished top of every FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship qualifying group they have played in since. "It is very important that we go to Portugal," Salgado said. "It would be a big blow not to play in the European Championship. All the players want to be there because every European international would want to be."
If Spain qualify, it will be a personal vindication for Salgado, recalled to the side by coach Iñaki Sáez after being left out of the 2002 World Cup squad by predecessor José Antonio Camacho. "
Every player wants to play in these big tournaments," he said. "So I hope that both myself and the rest of the team will go to Portugal. I have every belief in the side right now."
Leaders near full-strength
Armenia captain Harutyun Vardanyan is back from suspension for Saturday's game in Yerevan, while Iván Helguera is available for Spain after recovering from a knee injury. Meanwhile, if Northern Ireland are to deny Greece, they must do so without injured pair Phil Mulryne and Paul McVeigh. The home side are at full strength with the exception of Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who has undergone knee surgery.
Greece coach Otto Rehhagel accepts that destiny is calling his side. "Sometimes in life we wait for one moment to come, the moment of achievement. For us that moment will be on Saturday," he said. "It is a historic moment, the most significant of the past decade for the Greek national team and the players are aware of their role."
However, striker Angelos Charisteas knows that nothing can be taken for granted as Greece seek to qualify for only their third major finals. "We have every reason to believe that qualification is in our hands," he said. "But we must be careful and not waste the splendid results we have had up to now.
We must play this match as if it were a final."
Additional reporting by Dimitra Pappa
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