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Euro 2004

Italy vs. Bulgaria
0:45 MSK
4:45 pm EST

LISBON, Portugal (AP)— 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 star 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 - 5-0 to Sweden and 2-0 to Denmark. Italy drew 0-0 with Denmark and 1-1 with Sweden.

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 and had a trainer tend to his left knee, although the team's medical staff said he would be ready by Tuesday.

"The team is hurt, but we have a great desire to win," goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said. "There is certainly not a lot of happiness on this team after what happened to us in the last two games, but I'm always an optimist and I think Italy's chances of qualifying are still quite high."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored an 85th-minute equalizer for Sweden in Italy's last match and Vieri stormed out of a press conference Sunday and declared that he would not speak to the Italian media again after denouncing newspaper reports that he had an argument with Buffon after that game.

"I hope we can conclude this European championship on a nice note," said Buffon, who also rejected the report.

Buffon said the idea that Denmark and Italy would arrange a 2-2 draw was nonsense.

"We need to play to win and get to five points and then we'll digest what the other teams did," he said. "I think that other countries play their sports beyond these mathematical calculations, so I think that game will be played normally. I don't think they want to make a "brutta figura" - "ugly scene."

An even uglier scene would be a loss or draw with Bulgaria.

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 semifinalist squad.

The last time Italy met Bulgaria was when it won 2-1 in the USA '94 semifinals. Overall, Italy leads the series 6-4-2.

The "Azzurri" should be familiar with 18-year-old striker Valeri Bozhinov, who plays for Lecce in Italy's Serie A and is considered one of Europe's best young talents. Bulgaria also features 23-year-old Bayer Leverkusen forward Dimitar Berbatov. "Berbo" scored at a rate of one goal per every two games in Germany's Bundesliga this past season.

"We have to do our part and beat Bulgaria," Italy midfielder Stefano Fiore said, adding that only then the team would focus on the Denmark-Sweden result.

"I hope we have a bit of luck, because up until this point we haven't had any," he said.

Associated Press
Jun. 21, 2004 3:32 a.m.

Posted on Jun 22, 04 | 2:16 am

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