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(E) Croatia faces England, Switzerland, France in 2004
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  11/30/2003 | Sports | Unrated
(E) Croatia faces England, Switzerland, France in 2004


Croatia faces England, Switzerland, France in 2004

Associated Press
Nov. 30, 2003 9:42 a.m.

LISBON, Portugal (AP)— For the likes of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Marcel Desailly, facing English stars like David Beckham and Michael Owen is nothing new.
It is for Jacques Santini.

Defending champion France must play England in next year's European Championship after Sunday's draw put them in the same group along with Switzerland and Croatia.

After beating the French in the Rugby World Cup semifinal on the way to a long overdue world championship triumph with the oval ball eight days ago, England hopes for something similar when its meets at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon June 13.

England hasn't won much at soccer either since the 1966 World Cup and now seeks to beat one of the top two teams in the world or rely on defeating the Swiss and Croats to reach the quarterfinal.

Its best hope is that France, which tossed away its World Cup title last year without scoring a goal, has another off day.

Santini's team qualified for the Euro 2004 finals by winning all its group games. Two weeks ago, it scored a 3-0 victory over Germany in Gelsenkirchen in a friendly.

Yet the French coach, who has impressively restored the good reputation of French soccer after last year's World Cup, doesn't think that Group B will be an easy ride for his talented stars.

"This is a very balanced group we will have to be on the top of our form to get out of it alive," the French coach said.

Arsenal's Vieira, Henry, Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord and Pascal Cygan, Manchester United's Mikael Silvestre, Chelsea's Claude Makelele, Marcel Desailly and William Gallas all play in the Premier League. They have plenty of experience against the likes of Owen, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney. The same applies to Beckham, who was with Manchester United for eight successful seasons before moving to Real Madrid.

They will have to pass that information on to Santini.

"It's going to be an open game, it's going to be an open group and anyone can beat anybody," Vieira said. "It's going to be difficult for us.

"The first three points will be important. We are quite confident in ourselves but we know it will be a difficult game."

Eriksson, who has been England coach for two years, also knows plenty about his opponents.

"The France that you saw in Japan was not the real France and I should think that at Euro 2004 you will see them back at their best," the Swede said.

"If you take their squad as a whole they have the best football players of any side in the competition. With France they don't just have one or two good individuals but many many players who play in all the best leagues across Europe.

"Technically, tactically and physically they are in top form, as they showed against Germany."

While the French and English are favorites to reach the quarterfinal, the Swiss topped their group, losing just one match in eight and beating Ireland 2-0 in their final match.

But that one loss, 4-1 at Russia, doesn't look good on its record and Kobi Kuhn's team will have to lift its game to reach the last eight.

Croatia made it to the finals through the runners up playoffs, beating neighbor Slovenia, and looks nowhere near as strong as when it made it to the World Cup semifinals five years ago.

But the Croats have shown they can perform well in major tournaments, reaching the quarterfinals at Euro '96. Each time they have qualified, they have lost to the eventual winner - Germany at the '96 Euros and France at World Cup '98.

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