While all attention here is still focused on Maccabi Haifa, the Champions League and Manchester United, the rest of Europe is concerned with the qualifying competition for Euro 2004 which kicks off tomorrow.

Fifty teams, including defending champions France, are vying for the 15 available spots together with hosts Portugal. The 10 group winners, together with five of the ten runners-up, will gain the coveted berths for the competition which is second only to the World Cup in importance.

Twenty matches will take place over the weekend, with Israeli eyes concentrating on Group 1 where all its rivals will be in action. Cyrus will host France in Nicosia at the GSP stadium, Maccabi Haifa's home from home, and Slovenia, which looks to be Israel's main rival in the group for the runners-up spot, will host Malta in Slovenia.

New coach for France

France will put its reputation on the line under new coach Jacques Santini.

The French are the are odds-on favorites to win the group, but both they and Slovenia flopped at the World Cup. Santini has called for a line to be drawn under his team's summer trauma and start afresh.

"It's a new start, but I'm not going to throw overboard everything that went before," said the coach who took Lyon to the French league title in May and who has thus retained the vast bulk of predecessor Roger Lemerre's squad.

In his first match in charge France could only manage a 1-1 friendly draw in Tunisia. "But it was useful to have those three days with the team to work with them," he said.

The French media was tough on Santini after the Tunisia game, with Le Parisien noting that "France did not shine."

The French are hampered by injuries to keeper Fabien Barthez and strikers Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet. But Santini is happy to persist with his Lyon keeper Gregory Coupet and has proved unafraid to blood new stars in his short tenure to date.

He has therefore introduced two new names: Nantes defender Sylvain Armand - Roma's Vincent Candela is injured - and Auxerre's attacking midfielder Olivier Kapo.

In the absence of Henry and Trezeguet, Sylvain Wiltord will be out to show that he can transfer to the international stage the form which has brought him four goals this season already in an Arsenal shirt.

To date Wiltord has 12 goals at international level, including one on the way to victory in the Euro 2000 final against Italy.

Fulham's Steve Marlet and former Lyon teammate Sidney Govou are also on board, in preference to Nicolas Anelka. The man who replaced Anelka at Liverpool, former Lille man Bruno Cheyrou, gets a call-up instead.

Once upon a time a France trip to Cyprus would have been a formality, but with the team struggling for confidence there is little likelihood of a stroll such as the 7-0 success in the same fixture 20 years ago.

Govou is confident, however: "I struck up a good understanding with Marlet at Lyon and with Santini in charge it's like old times.

"Santini gives you confidence and he is giving the French league a boost by picking several players who star there. We all know what we have to do and how important this match is," said the young striker.