World Cup winners Italy and two-time European champions France were plunged into a fearsome ‘Group of Death’ when the draw for the Euro 2008 finals was made in Lucerne.
The two European superpowers will face Marco van Basten’s Holland as well as up-and-coming Romania, who finished above the Dutch in their qualifying group, when the tournament kicks off in Switzerland and Austria next June.
The co-hosts, among the top seeds, also found themselves with a considerable mountain to climb following the draw.
The Swiss face the Czech Republic in the opening game of the tournament on June 7 and also have to meet Portugal and Turkey, while Austria take on Slaven Bilic’s Croatia, three-time champions Germany and Poland.
Holders Greece will kick off the defence of their title against Sweden and also face Spain and Russia.
The final will take place in Vienna on June 29.
Italy beat France on penalties to win the World Cup last year and also faced the French in the qualifying competition for 2008 – the same group as Scotland, who gave both of them a scare before narrowly falling at the final hurdle.
The two big guns have met three times in the Euro finals but one of them could exit unless they both get past the Netherlands and Romania.
Italy coach Roberto Donadoni said: “We didn’t have an easy qualification group and we haven’t been lucky here either.
“I had a gut feeling on the way here it would turn out like this.”
Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, now France’s technical director, expressed similar sentiments.
“We’ll have to be very good from the first game and it may all come down to the one game against Italy,” he said.
“I think Italy will be eliminated because the Netherlands will be better.”
France coach Raymond Domenech was distinctly unhappy with his team’s fate.
He insisted: “We couldn’t have had it much more difficult.
“I think the seeding was a bit bizarre to say the least and I’m not the only one who feels like that, it’s crazy.
“I’m not happy getting Italy. Not to have the world champions in the top pot strikes me as mad.
“I would have preferred to have played in Austria rather than Switzerland so that not too many people hassle us. Nothing I hoped for has materialised.”
Croatia coach Slaven Bilic claimed his team, who sealed England’s fate at Wembley and sent Russia through instead, was good enough to go a long way.
“We proved we could beat any team by what we did at Wembley,” he said after being paired with joint hosts Austria, Germany and Poland.
“We like pressure. It’s the only way you can progress. We are full of confidence and we are going to be well prepared to come here and play good football.”
The game between Switzerland and Turkey will rekindle memories of an ugly incident during qualification for the last World Cup when Turkish players fought with their opponents in the tunnel during the play-off second leg in Istanbul – a spat which saw both nations later punished.
But Switzerland coach Kobi Kuhn said: “There is no problem between Switzerland and Turkey.
“Too many people have been fixating on things that should have been long forgotten. I think we will see a fair game with no spectator problems.”
Although England will not be there, having failed to qualify for a major finals for the first time in 14 years, eight title winners will be.
Poland and Austria are the only two countries taking part for the first time, although Russia competed as the Soviet Union.
Matches take place from June 7 to 29 in Geneva, Berne, Basel, Zurich, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Klagenfurt and Vienna.