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The final of UEFA EURO 2004™ may be missing some of Europe's finest players, but the two best teams of the tournament, and the two best coaches, will go head to head at the Estádio da Luz tonight to decide who will wear the crown of European champions for the next four years.
It has been a tournament of surprises, of wonderful goals, the odd controversy and glorious celebration: courtesy of the Portuguese and the Greeks, the partying has spread far beyond the continent's boundaries. The only pity is that supporters of these two fanatical footballing nations will not be able to celebrate together after the final as someone has to lose, penalties or not.
Greece have already gone far beyond their wildest fantasies merely by reaching the final, and defeat with honour for them would still be cause for some celebration. The way their German coach Otto Rehhagel has organised them and given them focus has defied almost all expert opinion.
Verge of a new era
Their players, many of whom fail to command first-team places at their clubs, have been a revelation in Portugal. Thanks to their teamwork, Greek football stands on the verge of a new era of respectability after years of under-achievement relative to the popularity of the sport there; no other country in Europe supports as many daily football newspapers as Greece.
Their chances of victory against Portugal will rest, as they did against the Czech Republic and France, on tight discipline and making the most of their chances. But the loss of Georgios Karagounis through suspension will be a handicap – the other game the talismanic FC Internazionale midfield player missed was against Russia, Greece's only defeat in the competition.
Rehhagel will be anxious not to lose another key player in central defender Mihalis Kapsis who suffered a knee problem in training. Still, the coach promised: "Our players will be passionate and very motivated. We have nothing to lose."
Knot of emotion
Portugal, meanwhile - the whole country - is a tangled knot of emotion right now and it will surely be one of Luiz Felipe Scolari's biggest tests as a coach to unravel it, in time to make sure the hosts do not slip on the same banana skin as the holders. Portugal, too, are anxious to herald a new dawn but victory is needed to ensure that the purpose and direction the Brazilian Scolari has added to their innate talent are not questioned again.
Since the tournament's opening match between these teams Portugal have gone from strength to strength, climbing mountain after mountain, but now, for practically the first time since that traumatic defeat by Greece, they are clear favourites to win a game. The people, having initially been hoping to reach the semi-final, will not be satisfied if the record against Greece is not set straight.
They have not lost a match in the capital since 1987, a run of 30 games, and with a settled side they are entitled to be confident. The only selection dilemma for Scolari was who leads the attack - he has opted for the rapier thrusts of Pauleta, so far off-target, rather than the broadsword of Nuno Gomes.
Confidence in Pauleta
"Pauleta may not be scoring but he helps the team in other ways," Scolari said. "His participation is always important for his determination, commitment and involvement in the group. I have every confidence in him." And nothing would delight the home crowd more if the man from the Azores, hitherto the weakest link, becomes the strongest on the biggest stage of all.
Portugal: Ricardo; Miguel, Ricardo Carvalho, Jorge Andrade, Nuno Valente; Costinha; Luís Figo, Deco, Maniche, Ronaldo; Pauleta.
Greece (probable): Nikopolidis; Seitaridis, Dellas, Kapsis, Fyssas; Katsouranis, Giannakopoulos, Zagorakis, Basinas; Charisteas, Vryzas.
Referee: Marcus Merk (Ger).
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