Tournament favorites France meet Spain tonight, for the glamour quarterfinals of Euro 2000, a match where both the crowd and a global TV audience should be in for a footballing feast.
France proved they have the best national team by winning the World Cup two years ago, while Spain have the best club sides in Europe after filling three of the four slots in last season's Champions League semi-finals.
Real Madrid lifted the trophy in Paris last month at the Stade de France. Their inaugural match witnessed national hero Zinedine Zidane scoring the winner as they beat Spain 1-0 in a friendly.
Now the two countries' paths cross yet again, with a place in the semi-finals at stake, and Roger Lemerre's side widely expected to finish on top.
Spain's two-goal rally during injury-time to beat Yugoslavia 4-3 and reach the last eight was the stuff of footballing legend. But there will be no such deliverance against France if Spain's rickety defense fail to cope with the sheer speed and firepower of Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka.
Spain's only chance is to build cautiously from the back and hope that either Raul or strike partner Alfonso, who scored twice against the Yugoslavs, can exploit a rare lapse in concentration by the world's best defense.
Given the strength in depth of the French squad - their reserves were leading Holland's first XI 2-1 at half-time on Wednesday - Lemerre can have few worries about his team line-up on Sunday.
Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Petit, who is carrying a knee injury picked up in the victory over the Czech Repblic, missed the game against the Dutch in Amsterdam which finished up 3-2 to the hosts.
However, in Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, Lemerre can choose between two first-rate replacements - depending on whether he wants to add more muscle or more creative spark to his midfield.
Henry is certain to start, while Christophe Dugarry's fine performance against the Dutch will make him a rival for Anelka's place up front - if only for the second half.
France's attack is probably the hardest to control at Euro 2000 and provided Zidane continues his sparkling form at Euro 2000, there should be no upset for the form-book.
Lemerre is preparing for a tight match, despite the huge reserves of energy which Spain burned up in their nerve-jangling win over Yugoslavia.
"The euphoria is with them," said the France coach. "They'll be re-living all the feelings they've already experienced at club level (last season) - and that will help them combat the fatigue."
Euphoria or not, a desire for revenge is bound to accompany Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho, a defender in the Spanish team which lost to Michel Platini's French team in the final of the 1984 European championships.
Achieving that will rest not only on the shoulders of Raul and Alfonso, but also on the attacking form of wingback Barjuan Sergi, who wrought havoc with Yugoslavia, and midfielders Gaizka Mendieta and Joseba Etxeberria.
Ivan Helguera and Josep Guardiola will meanwhile have to try and muzzle Zidane.
France may have lost an 14-match unbeaten run against the Dutch, but their first-team will be giving little or nothing away and Camacho is already philosophical about his team's likely fate.
Given the choice, "I would rather be eliminated by the world champions," he said. On Sunday, France should satisfy that demand -(AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)