France, Italy ready for round two

World Cup winners Italy better finish their long lap of honour before Wednesday. Otherwise they may not make it to Euro 2008.

Held 1-1 at home by Lithuania on Saturday, the lacklustre Italians play in France less than two months after the two sides met in the World Cup final.

A defeat at Stade de France and Roberto Donadoni’s team could be five points behind the French, Scotland and Georgia in the race for places at the European Championship in two years.

Raymond Domenech’s French team is anxious to make up for their loss to the Italians in Berlin and face an Azzurri line-up that is struggling to recapture the form that earned a fourth World Cup.

”It’s not revenge because it’s not like a boxing match where you can win the belt back,” said France striker Thierry Henry, who was in the squad that won the 1998 World Cup. ”If we win, it will be three points. But it won’t give us the World Cup.”

But a rematch so soon afterward always offers opposing sides a chance for redemption or validation.

”One side will want revenge, the other will want to show they deserved to win,” Donadoni said.

The Italian stars have taken a long break since their July 9 triumph in Berlin.

Because the Italian season doesn’t start until next weekend, Donadoni, who replaced Marcello Lippi after the World Cup, decided most of the World Cup stars were short of match fitness and decided to rest nine of them, including playmaker Francesco Totti.

”France is much further ahead of us in their preparation,” Donadoni said. ”The physical characteristics of some of their players is really imposing. We’re going to have to take that into account.”

The players who were unable to beat Lithuania in Naples realise how much tougher it will be for Italy to play as the World Cup holders.

”From now on we have to get it into our heads that whoever plays us, being world champions, is going to be extremely competitive and we’re going to have to do the same,” said AC Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. ”We have a difficult group.”

As well as France, Scotland, Georgia and Lithuania, Group B also contains Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine. Donadoni and his players know what a threat he could be to their chances of reaching the Euro finals.

While France host Italy, Ukraine take on Georgia for their first group game, and Scotland, buoyed by a 6-0 victory over the Faeroe Islands on Saturday, go to Lithuania.

Another round of 21 Euro 2008 games sees three-time champions Germany go to San Marino, and their biggest Group D rivals, the Czech Republic, cross the border into Slovakia, who split from the Czechs in 1993.

The Germans needed a deflected Lukas Podolski shot to beat Ireland 1-0 in Stuttgart on Saturday. Podolski and Miroslav Klose, who scored eight goals between them at the World Cup, receive an opportunity to score more against San Marino, one of the weakest teams in Europe.

Of the other powerhouse teams in action, Spain hope to follow up their 4-0 victory over Liechtenstein by winning at Northern Ireland, and England, who outplayed Andorra 5-0 on Saturday, visit Macedonia.

Two of England’s Group E rivals, Russia and Croatia, meet on Wednesday and Croatia coach Slaven Bilic has dropped three players from the team for partying at a nightclub where a brawl broke out.

Strikers Ivica Olic, Bosko Balaban and Dario Srna will miss the game in Moscow.

Portugal play their first Group A game at Finland, and The Netherlands, who edged Luxembourg 1-0 on Saturday, host Belarus in Group G. — Sapa-AP

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