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Cream of Europe rise to the top

Italy and France showed their class as several nations edged closer to UEFA EURO 2004™.

With two rounds of UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying still to play, Portugal, as hosts, remain the only nation certain of a place in the 16-team finals. Italy and France were among the teams to move closer to securing their berths last night, while Rudi Völler pointed out that Germany still "control our destiny" after a goalless draw in Iceland.

Angry Völler
Germany trail Iceland by a point in Group 5 after a goalless draw which drew criticism from the German media in Reykjavik. An angry Völler said: "I have to stand behind my team. I can't stand to hear this any more about 'another low point' for German football. We have to work harder." Scotland are still in contention following a 3-1 victory against the Faroe Islands.

'Great praise'
The Italy coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, also had plenty to say, though it was all positive after his side thrashed Wales 4-0 in Milan to usurp them at the top of Group 9. "My players deserve great praise," he said. "They were very determined and ready for a fight. We are in great condition at the moment." Filippo Inzaghi inspired the victory, scoring a second-half hat-trick which was added to by Alessandro Del Piero's penalty.

Showdown looms
If Inzaghi is the toast of Italy, then ditto Wayne Rooney in England. At 17 years 317 days the striker became the youngest player to score for his country, cancelling out F.Y.R. Macedonia's opener in Skopje and paving the way for David Beckham's winning penalty. "It was a great feeling," said Rooney. Turkey still lead the way after winning 3-0 in Liechtenstein, victorious coach Senol Günes saying: "We wanted the three points and got them. Everything is now focused on England."

Attack praised
Group 3 is even tighter, with the Czech Republic and the Netherlands level at the top ahead of their meeting in Prague on Wednesday. Czech coach Karel Brückner said "thankfully our attacking play was good enough" after they came from behind to defeat Belarus 3-1 away. Dutch coach Dick Advocaat, whose side beat Austria by the same scoreline, added: "If we play like that on Wednesday it will be very tough."

France almost there
Holders France are within a point of Portugal after thrashing Cyprus 5-0 in Paris. "We had set ourselves the aim of winning and it's what we did," said coach Jacques Santini. "It puts us in a good position but nothing is done yet." Slovenia still have an outside chance of winning Group 1 after a 3-1 success against Israel, but are realistically playing for second place.

'Good preparation'
Greece will qualify automatically for the finals by beating Northern Ireland on 11 October after extending their lead at the top of Group 6 with a 1-0 win in Armenia. Sweden are also calling the shots in their section, Group 4, after putting five past San Marino. "It was an OK performance by our team, and good preparation for the important away game against Poland," Sweden coach Lagerbäck said. Poland beat Latvia 2-0 away.

Markov satisfied
Bulgaria defeated Estonia 2-0 in Group 8, to stay a point clear of Croatia, who beat Andorra 3-0. "The most important thing was the win," said Bulgaria coach Plamen Markov. The Republic of Ireland would probably settle for second place in Group 10, where they sit now, after a 1-1 home draw against Russia. Coach Brian Kerr said: "We're still in with a chance." In Group 2, four teams are in contention after victories for Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.