By Paul Saffer
After 200 UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying ties, 180 minutes of football will now decide which of the ten remaining candidates will take up the last five places for the finals in Portugal, as the play-offs begin on Saturday.
The Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, Norway, Turkey, Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and Wales go into their two-legged matches knowing a single goal, or even a penalty shoot-out, could be the difference between a shot at becoming European champions and a summer in front of the television.
The Netherlands know this more than anyone ahead of Saturday's trip to Scotland. Four years ago they lost to Italy in the UEFA EURO 2000™ semi-finals on spot-kicks, but in 1996 they became the first team to reach the UEFA European Championship via a play-off - overcoming the Republic of Ireland in Liverpool. Yet they were also beaten on away goals by Belgium in a play-off for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
Scotland themselves have an unhappy play-off record in this competition - eliminated by neighbours England prior to the EURO 2000™ finals. However, they could consider themselves the more fortunate of the two sides, having only confirmed second place in Group 5 on the last day of qualifying, while the Dutch were pipped to automatic qualification by the Czech Republic. Scotland manager Berti Vogts said after the play-off draw: "
Anything can happen and we have a chance."
Tough for Norway
Like the Netherlands, another former European champion in action are Spain. Norway are the visitors to Valencia CF's Mestalla stadium on Saturday night. Play-offs are a new experience for the Norwegians, while not since beating Morocco in the 1962 World Cup qualifiers have Spain faced one. Norway have a domestic base to their squad, with six Rosenborg BK players included, but no place for AS Roma's John Carew at a stadium he knows well. Coach Nils Johan Semb said of their chances: "It will be tough but it is possible."
Turkey might have been 2002 World Cup semi-finalists, but being held at home by England last month means they must take on Latvia to reach Portugal. Few predicted the Baltic nation could pip Poland and Hungary to make the play-offs, but a victory in Sweden has given Latvia a chance of a first major qualification, and coach Aleksandrs Starkovs has promised: "
We will try our best, but it will be hard." Certainly, Turkey have a formidable play-off record, having ousted Austria on the way to Korea/Japan and Ireland four years ago.
Slovenia and Croatia have both been impressive campaigners since the former Yugoslavia dissolved. But while Croatia made it to EURO 2000™ and the 2002 World Cup straight from their groups, Slovenia needed play-offs each time. Romania were their victims two years ago, while for EURO 2000™ they saw off Ukraine, ironically eliminated by Croatia prior to the 1998 World Cup. Slovenia were behind Croatia in both their EURO 96™ and 1998 World Cup qualifying pools, but take an experienced squad to Zagreb on Saturday.
Russia welcome Wales
Wales's only major qualification came in the 1958 World Cup, when they gained a play-off victory against Israel. Nearly 50 years later, Russia stand in their way as the two nations meet in Moscow on Saturday for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union. Russia's last play-off experience was a 1997 defeat by Italy, but confident Football Union of Russia president Vyacheslav Koloskov said: "We think Wales are the best opponents for us to face." However, Welsh manager Mark Hughes warned: "
There is a very realistic chance we can get through."
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