Group 7: A setback for injury-hit England in F.Y.R. Macedonia would give Turkey the upper hand.
By Luke Williams
Ever since the fixture list was confirmed for UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 7, it has been presumed that the 11 October showdown between Turkey and England will decide which country will qualify automatically for next summer's finals in Portugal.
As the group approaches its climax this remains the case, but the whole context of that match could still be affected by Saturday's events. Turkey, two points ahead of the English having played a game more, are not expected to encounter many difficulties in Liechtenstein, but it could be a different story for England as they visit F.Y.R. Macedonia.
The former Yugoslav republic represent a stern test. Earlier in the campaign, in a match remembered for a spectacular goal direct from a corner by Artim Sakiri, the Macedonians secured a 2-2 draw against England in Southampton. A repeat of that scoreline would probably leave Sven-Göran Eriksson's side needing to beat Turkey in Istanbul, rather than merely draw, to top the group.
England will not be helped by the absence of several regulars in Skopje. Midfield players Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Trevor Sinclair as well as defender Rio Ferdinand are all out, while captain David Beckham is struggling with a groin problem.
Eriksson is particularly concerned about the absence of Manchester United FC star Scholes. "It's not easy to find another Paul Scholes," he said. With John Terry expected to partner Sol Campbell in defence and Frank Lampard, Owen Hargreaves, Nicky Butt and Kieron Dyer offering cover in midfield, Eriksson must decide who will partner Michael Owen up front - with Wayne Rooney, Owen's Liverpool FC team-mate Emile Heskey and James Beattie all in contention.
"Owen will start, I guess. But let's see who will play with him," the England coach said. "Heskey did very well in the last game [...] but Rooney's fitness is getting better and better. [Beattie] scored a lot of goals last season and is scoring again now. I haven't decided who is going to play."
Sakiri set to start
Missing for Macedonia are suspended trio Igor Jancevski, Goce Sedloski and Aleksandar Vasoski. However, one man who looks certain to start is the aforementioned Sakiri, whose wonder goal in the last match between the sides helped him secure a move to English first division side West Bromwich Albion FC. The 29-year-old is of Albanian descent but his success for Macedonia has already done much to unite the country behind the team.
A win on Saturday against England would be even more of a tonic for the fledging nation, which only became independent in 1991. "In Macedonia, England is the No1 country," Sakiri said. "To beat England would be like winning the [FIFA] World Cup for our nation - that's how big it would be. [All] the tickets were gone a long time ago. I think people would have a day off if we won and there would be a national holiday every year on that day."
Meanwhile, ahead of his side's trip to Liechtenstein, Turkey coach Senol Günes has warned his players not to underestimate the opposition. "I don't want anyone to relax in any part of the match," he said. "Liechtenstein play counter-attacking football and have a defensive formation which usually consists of five players. We will use a pressing game in order to break down their defence." With Nihat Kahveci injured and Hasan Sas a doubt, Tuncay Sanli could be in line for a place in attack while Emre Belözoglu misses the match through suspension.