By John Leonidou & Domenic Aquilina
The Group 1 fixture between Cyprus and Malta on Wednesday hardly has the look of a qualification decider about it, but it still promises to be a fascinating encounter between two of Europe's smallest nations.
In the past, the two islands' reputation for footballing prowess was limited to say the least, but a battling 2-1 defeat in their first UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying game against France has demonstrated that Cyprus are no longer the walkover many would have expected.
With Mediterranean honour at stake, Cyprus coach Momcilo Vukotic has promised an attacking performance against Malta. "
We are the favourites but we will have to prove that on the pitch," he said. "Our team will be on full attack on Wednesday. I expect Malta to play with a compact defence and to hit us on the break which is why I will be expecting my side to be clinical in front of goal."
The Yugoslavian coach has reason to be concerned about the Maltese threat, as previous encounters have not always gone in the larger island's favour. Cyprus have won just one of their previous four games against Malta and the memory of a 1-0 home defeat against them in 1988 is one that most Cypriot football supporters would prefer to forget.
With attack in mind, Vukotic will call on the Cypriot league's top scorers on Wednesday, with Omonia FC's Marcos Rainer Rauffmann, Panathinaikos FC's Michael Konstantinou and FC PAOK Thessaloniki's Ioannis Okkas expected to lead the line in a three-pronged attack. Omonia's Georgos Theodotou, Kostas Kaiafas and Akis Oakam also look set to figure, along with APOEL Nicosia FC's Marinos Satsias.
'We will try'
Malta, meanwhile, are taking comfort in their underdog status, with German coach Siegfried Held saying: "
On paper, we are the weakest team in our group. We also know that Cyprus have full professionals, so we have to fight for our lives and see what comes out from this game. The main ambition is to avoid finishing last in our group - we will try, and we will see if this is possible."
With the remaining sides in the group - France, Slovenia and Israel - not in competitive action again until 2003, this week's friendly games will help their coaches keep things ticking over. Deposed world champions France will not have it easy when they take on Yugoslavia at the Stade de France.
Without Zinedine Zidane through injury, and with Manchester City FC striker Nicolas Anelka having refused a national call-up to concentrate on his club career, coach Jacques Santini will have difficulty in fielding his best team. Arsenal FC midfield player Patrick Vieira and FC Bayern München defender Willy Sagnol are also likely to miss out with Benoît Pedretti and Philippe Mexes taking their places.
"This friendly match will be a link between work done since the game in Tunisia [a 1-1 draw in August] and the next EURO 2004™ qualifying game [in March against Malta]," said Santini. "I wanted to keep the same squad to maintain our dynamic and also to give more playing time to some players."
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