GERMANY, Italy close in on final places

Thursday, May 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Three-time champions Germany and Italy will stand on the brink of qualifying for next year's World Cup if they win their next qualifying games, while Norway could be on the way out.

Yugoslavia badly needs a win in Moscow to stay in contention while Spain, England and Poland can strengthen their chances with victories. Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands are fighting over two spots in their group.

Two rounds of qualifying in Europe on Saturday and next Wednesday involves 43 games, with most nations playing twice. By Wednesday night, the situation in the nine groups should be much clearer.

Germany, five points clear of its rivals after four straight wins, can clinch a place in the top two in Group 9 by winning at Finland and Albania.

If England loses in Greece on Wednesday, Rudi Voeller's team will clinch a place in the finals by winning the group with two games to spare. That would mark an amazing turnaround for a team in disarray after its first-round elimination from Euro 2000.

But England is on a strong run under former Lazio coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, having won two Group 9 games against Finland and Albania and exhibition matches against Spain (3-0) and Mexico (4-0).

The Italians, seven points clear atop Group 8, go to Georgia looking for a victory that would mean another big step towards automatic qualification. But the game has been overshadowed by the kidnapping of a Georgian player's brother.

The younger brother of AC Milan player Kakha Kaladze has gone missing and, because of the history of other kidnappings in Georgia, the game will take place amid tight security.

``I think that Kakha Kaladze will go out onto the field,'' said Georgia soccer federation president Merab Zherdania. ``He had not intended to come, not only for this match but to Georgia at all.

``The situation is really very complex. We tried to change this game. We made the request to FIFA, UEFA but they refused us. There was no other way out. We have to play.''

Drugs scandals have also xx the latest round of games.

Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids and Portuguese captain Fernando Couto, who tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone, were banned by FIFA on Friday from playing in Group 2 games.

FIFA took the action because both players had already been banned from club games by the Italian FA. But Dutch captain Frank de Boer, who also has failed a drug test for the same steroid, is free to play against Estonia on Saturday because he is yet to be face a disciplinary hearing.

Couto misses the visit to Ireland on Saturday and the home game against Cyprus on Wednesday. The Irish lead the group by three points from Portugal and Netherlands, but the Portuguese have a game in hand on both.

Norway, which usually fields a star-studded lineup including Manchester United's Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, Valencia's John Carew, Glasgow Rangers Tore Andre Flo and Tottenham's Steffen Iversen, is again plagued by injuries.

Of those four strikers, only Carew is available. Coach Johan Semb, whose team is next to last in six-nation Group 5 with just two points from five games, is in despair

``Now I am really depressed,'' he said. ``I thought we had enough injuries but it doesn't seem to stop.''

Norway has tough games at third place Ukraine on Saturday, followed by second place Belarus on Wednesday. Norway also has 11 points to make up on group leader Poland, which visits winless Wales and last place Armenia and appears on course for the finals.

After losing 1-0 at home to runaway leader Russia, Yugoslavia effectively has to win in Moscow on Saturday and then beat the Faeroe Islands on Wednesday to stand any chance of staying in the hunt.

Led by a new coaching team, including former AC Milan star Dejan Savicevic, the Yugoslavs are eight points behind the Russians and back in fourth place, with only soccer minnows Faeroe Islands and Luxembourg behind them.

Elsewhere the lead is likely to change in four other groups.

Slovakia, Turkey and Sweden are tied on 11 points in Group 4, the Czech Republic heads Group 3 with 11, followed by Bulgaria (10) and Denmark (9).

Scotland leads Belgium by three points in Group 6 but is idle and likely will lose the lead. Austria, also not playing, leads Spain by one point in Group 7, with the Spaniards in action twice at Israel and at home to Bosnia.