By Jay Mwamba
Italy and cup holders France were installed as 11/2 co-favorites to win the 2004 European Championship by some oddsmakers after last Friday’s qualifying draw in Portugal.
Ireland were quoted at 66/1 by London-based Will Hill despite being top seeded in a very manageable group comprising fellow World Cup ’02 finalists Russia, Switzerland, Georgia, and Albania.
Speaking to reporters, Irish manager Mick McCarthy said he was confident the Republic would live up to their ranking as the top seed in Group 10 and qualify for their first European championship since 1988.
“It’s certainly a group we can qualify from. I don’t think there will be a team that will run away with it, though,” McCarthy said.
“It will be a hardworking group and everyone will take points off one another, but I think we can progress,” he added.
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Northern Ireland boss Sammy McIlroy wasn’t too terribly disappointed, either, at being drawn with hotshots Spain, Ukraine, Greece and Armenia in Group 6.
Evoking memories of the North’s stunning 1-0 victory over Spain in the 1982 World Cup finals in Valencia, which he played in, McIlroy said: “The 20th anniversary of that game is coming up in June and it’s going to be great for the fans to relive that night.”
Before their Euro ’04 qualifying encounters, however, Spain and Northern Ireland will meet in a prearranged friendly at Belfast’s Windsor Park in April.
“Of course, Spain have improved a hell of a lot since then and they’ve got world-class players like Raul and Morientes,” McIlroy said. “It’s going to be great playing them again and the friendly in April adds that extra spice to it.”
He sized up the other teams thus: “Ukraine have got some very good players like Rebrov, Shevchenko and Luzhny. Greece pushed England all the way in the qualifying for the World Cup, [and] while I don’t even know where Armenia is, I do know that Armenia are no mugs.”
According to Will Hill, Northern Ireland are long shots to go all the way in Euro ’04. The North are quoted at 1,500/1, while Spain share 6/1 odds with hosts and the tournament’s only automatic qualifiers, Portugal.
England, a respectable 7/1 contender for the continent title and among the outside favorites for this summer’s World Cup, face relatively modest opposition in Group 7. Their only likely threat appears to be Turkey.
Slovakia, Macedonia and the minnows from Liechtenstein complete Group 7.
In Group 5, Scotland, who are courting former German national team coach Berti Vogts for their vacant manager’s position, are drawn against the Germans, Iceland, Lithuania and the Faroe Islands, and seem to have a realistic chance of at least making the playoffs for teams that finish second.
The Scots are 125/1 possibles, while Germany are pegged at 10/1.
Wales, however, were probably left cursing their luck after being cast in the closest thing to a “Group of Death.” Ryan Giggs and mates will have to go through Italy, Yugoslavia, Finland and Azerbaijan in Group 9 to qualify for their first-ever European Championship.
The Welsh effort is given odds of 1,500/1 to succeed, although Azerbaijan, at 10,000/1, are destined to be dubbed “whipping boys” of the group.
The rest of the qualifying groups are (top seeds first):
Group 1 — France, Slovenia, Isr’l, Cyprus, Malta; Group 2 — Romania, Denmark, Norway, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Luxembourg; Group 3 — The Czech Republic, Holland, Austria, Belarus, Moldova; Group 4 — Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, San Marino. And Group 8 — Belgium, Croatia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Andorra.
The 10 group winners qualify automatically for the finals, along with hosts Portugal. The 10 runners-up meet in a two-legged playoff with the winners securing berths in the finals.
Dates for the qualifiers will be announced later.