Two of European football's biggest names have been stepping up their efforts to be fit for Saturday's EURO 2004™ qualifiers.
England captain David Beckham returned to full training today after resting since suffering a calf strain in Manchester United FC's English Premiership match against Everton FC on Monday. The 27-year-old missed England's 1-1 friendly draw with Portugal last month because of a similar problem but should be able to lead the national side for their Group 7 opener in Slovakia.
Another England player to return to training was Ashley Cole. The Arsenal FC defender had been resting a hamstring problem but is not expected to miss out like team-mate Sol Campbell, who withdrew yesterday with a stomach bug.
Spain forward Raúl González has a groin strain but was working extensively with physiotherapists today in the hope of overcoming the injury before the Group 6 home encounter with Northern Ireland. The 25-year-old is one goal away from his 30th international strike, which would take him clear as the all-time leading goalscorer for Spain. He is currently level on 29 with Madrid team-mate Fernando Hierro. "We have designed a plan to treat him in the next few days, he won't be training, but doing recovery exercises," said team doctor Genaro Borras.
One player who definitely will not feature in Saturday's action is Slovenia defender Spasoje Bulajic. The 1. FSV Mainz 05 defender has been sidelined with a knee injury and will miss the Group 1 away game against France. Slovenia coach Bojan Prašnikar has brought in NK Koper's Bekim Kapic as cover but is expected to replace Bulajic in the side with NK Maribor defender Fabijan Cipot.
Greece have also had defensive difficulties with right-back Christos Patsatzoglou failing to make today's trip to Kiev for Saturday's Group 6 match against Ukraine. The Olympiakos Pireaus FC defender is suffering from a virus but Greece coach Otto Rehhagel is hopeful he will return for Wednesday's home game with Armenia.
'Safe in defence'
Another player missing out on Saturday but hoping to play next Wednesday is Norway centre-back Ronny Johnsen. The Aston Villa FC player has a hamstring problem which will keep him out of the Group 2 game in Romania but may be overcome by the time Norway welcome Bosnia-Herzegovina in midweek. Erik Hoftun is the favourite to replace Johnsen in the Norway rearguard. "We have to be very safe in defence, and attack with strength when we can," said Norway coach Nils Johan Semb.
Scotland have lost right-back Robbie Stockdale with an inflamed foot before they take on Iceland in a Group 1 match while Northern Ireland's Danny Griffin has a back problem that has seen Wrexham FC defender Shaun Holmes called up for the game in Spain. Wales are almost certain to be without West Bromwich Albion FC midfield player Jason Koumas for next Wednesday's Group 9 visit of Italy because of a thigh injury.
Meanwhile Israel coach Avraham Grant has trimmed his squad for his country's Group 1 match against Malta. Before leaving for Valletta today, Grant told Racing Santander's Ilan Bachar, Avi Tikva of BSC Young Boys and Hapoel Petach-Tikva's Abed Rabach that they would not be needed. Finally, Bulgaria captain Krassimir Balakov is a major doubt for their home Group 8 qualifier with Croatia. The VfB Stuttgart playmaker injured his stomach muscles over the weekend. Balakov said: "If my condition on Saturday is as it is now, I will not be able to play."
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