Calm urged as Greece andAlbania prepare for qualifier

Greece has won three straight European World Cup qualifying matches. Tomorrow night, the European champions go for No 4 against Albania. The Greeks played their first competitive soccer match – after winning the European Championship – against Albania in Tirana in September. The Albanians won 2-1, setting off clashes around Greece that left one Albanian immigrant dead. «Football is a popular game in Greece and Albania… But it’s only a game,» Albanian President Alfred Moisiu said after meeting with President Karolos Papoulias in Ioannina, northwestern Greece. «We can’t both win, but I wish you good luck,» Moisiu said. Greece followed its opening loss with draws at home against Turkey and in the Ukraine. Since then, the Greeks have beat Kazakhstan, Denmark and Georgia to move into second place in Group 2 with 11 points. Ukraine leads with 14 points. Denmark and Turkey are tied in third spot with nine points each. Albania lies fifth on six points, while Georgia and Kazakhstan, both with a game less, occupy the group’s last two places with five and zero points, respectively. «This is simply a game for us, nothing more,» Greece striker Angelos Charisteas said. «I urge football fans and people working here to watch the game calmly.. . and enjoy the match,» Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said. Also yesterday, a group of anarchists briefly occupied an Athens sports radio station and broadcast pro-immigrant messages over the airwaves. As the European zone’s qualifiers reach the halfway stage, many of the continent’s top teams are poised to reach next year’s finals in Germany. Greece, with three straight wins under its belt, has certainly boosted its chances, but the winning run needs to continue. Also under pressure at this stage are traditional powers Portugal, France and Spain. «You are the European champions and you shouldn’t be afraid of anyone,» Greece’s German coach Otto Rehhagel told his team ahead of tomorrow’s game against Albania. The Greeks were boosted by a 3-1 victory in Georgia on Saturday. «If we don’t beat Albania, the win against Georgia will be wasted,» said Panathinaikos’s Yiannis Goumas, who is expected to replace injured defender Traianos Dellas. Group 2 frontrunner Ukraine will be without injured AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko for tomorrow’s home clash against Denmark. He fractured a cheekbone in a collision last month with Cagliari defender Simone Loria. «With Shevchenko, it’s one team, and it’s quite another one without him,» Ukraine coach Oleh Blokhin said. In Group 2’s other game tomorrow, Georgia takes on Turkey at home. In other action, Portugal, the Euro 2004 runner-up, faces a key Group 3 game in Slovakia. Both have 13 points atop the group. Portugal is coming off a 4-1 friendly win Saturday over Canada. Slovakia defeated Estonia 2-1. «We are aware that it’s an important game for our qualification campaign, probably the most important game,» said Deco, the Brazilian-born midfielder who has made 26 appearances for Portugal. «Slovakia is our closest rival. The next two games could decide qualification.» Under European qualifying rules, the eight group winners advance automatically to Germany. The top two second-place teams also advance, and the other six second-place teams face playoffs. Host Germany qualifies automatically. (AP)

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