PREVIEW : Bulgaria may be perfect remedy for Italian woes

Associated Press

Lisbon, June 21:

Bulgaria may be just the opponent Italy needs in its final group match. The “Azzurri” are hobbling with injuries and hampered by suspensions, bans and squabbles with the media heading into Tuesday’s game in Guimaraes. But even without playmaker Francesco Totti, captain and defender Fabio Cannavaro and midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Cristiano Zanetti, Italy is a big favorite. Bulgaria was eliminated from Euro 2004 after losing its first two matches. The Italians are worried about the result of the day’s other Group C game between Denmark and Sweden, which will be played at the same time as the “Azzurri” match a half-hour down the road in Porto.

If the two Scandinavian teams draw 2-2 or higher, they will both advance, sending Italy home. If Italy wins and either team wins the other match, Italy will advance. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw between Denmark and Sweden coupled with an Italian win would also qualify Italy.

Totti will miss the match while serving the second game of a three-match ban for spitting at a Danish opponent. Cannavaro and Gattuso are suspened after picking up two yellow cards in the first two matches and Zanetti is out with a leg injury. Forward Christian Vieri is also hurting. He sat out practice on Sunday, although the team’s medical staff said he would be ready by Tuesday. The Italians should be wary of a team that won its qualifying group ahead of favored Croatia and Belgium.

Creative coach Plamen Markov has transformed Bulgaria from an also-ran that failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup into a team that more closely resembles its 1994 World Cup semi-finalist squad. The last time Italy met Bulgaria was when it won 2-1 in the USA ‘94 semi-finals. Overall, Italy leads the series 6-4-2.

Sweden vs Denmark

LISBON: Sweden and Denmark will have the fate of three nations in their hands as they contest an-all Scandinavian derby in final Euro 2004 Group C action. Either Sweden or Denmark will advance to the quarter-finals with a win. But they could also knock out Italy with a 2-2 draw. Going into the Group C finale, Sweden and Denmark have four points and Italy has two. Bulgaria has zero and has been eliminated. There has always been intense rivalry between the two countries, and their showdowns have been as passionate as any England vs. Scotland or Spain vs Portugal contest.

The last time the two sides met in a European championship, was in Sweden in 1992 when the Nordic nations played in the first round. Sweden beat Denmark 1-0 but the Danes went on to win the tournament. The Swedes have been particularly impressed with the goaltending of Thomas Sorensen, who shut out both Italy and Bulgaria. Sweden will also be watching out for Everton midfielder Thomas Graveson and attacking midfielder Jon Dahl Tomasson. Speculation of a possible “deal” between Sweden and Denmark to tie 2-2 have run rampant within the Italian camp, although the Swedish team has angrily dismissed the possibility.