With 99 days remaining until the opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ on 11 June, no fewer than 28 of the qualified nations will be in action on Tuesday and Wednesday. With a total of 45 matches on the programme, including eight between qualifiers and 12 others involving at least one South Africa-bound team, it promises to be an intriguing week.
Chile had originally arranged to play Costa Rica and Korea DPR in an unusual double-header in Santiago, but these fixtures have been cancelled in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that recently struck the country.
The most highly anticipated clash of the evening takes place in Munich, where Germany take on Argentina, but the encounter between European champions Spain and 2006 FIFA World Cup finalists France will also have fans of flowing football licking their lips. Among the other sides fancied to figure this summer, Brazil travel to London on Tuesday for a tricky test against the Republic of Ireland while the reigning world champions, Italy, make the much shorter trip to neighbouring Monaco to face Paul le Guen’s Cameroon.
The big guns
As befits the most successful team in FIFA World Cup history, Brazil have the usual embarrassment of riches to choose from as their final squad of 23 begins to take shape. The team that Dunga is set to field against the Irish will draw heavily on players plying their trade in Europe, with only four home-based stars present in the youthful squad selected for this particular friendly. To cover the loss of the injured Luis Fabiano, the Auriverde coach has brought in Grafite, Wolfsburg’s prolific goalscorer.
Italy-Cameroon may well be the fixture that sees the largest amount of experimentation. The wave of injuries that has hit the Azzurri, while depriving them of the skills of regulars such as Gianluigi Buffon, will enable coach Marcello Lippi to test out a number of fringe players with a view to determining the final six or seven squad places still in the balance. Specifically, the absences of Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta will give the wily Italian a chance to see the on-form Marco Borriello and Giampaolo Pazzini in action. In the opposing dugout, Paul le Guen, clearly disappointed by his charges’ performances in the recent CAF African Cup of Nations, has made seven changes to his group, opting for youth by bringing Sebastien Bassong, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Joel Matip back in to the fold.
Meanwhile, things could not be looking better for Spain. The champions of Europe have the intention of fielding their first-choice line-up at the Stade de France on Wednesday, a line-up which should include Fernando Torres, who celebrated his comeback from injury on Sunday with an instinctive strike for Liverpool against Blackburn Rovers. France, meanwhile, are another team that have been forced into a considerable amount of reshuffling, injury having robbed Raymond Domenech of seven regular starters and brought about the return of Djibril Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa. For the first time, Marseille’s Benoit Cheyrou and Bordeaux defender Mickael Ciani have found their way into the Domenech's plans, but there is still no place in the squad for Patrick Vieira.
The other contenders
For Germany, the upcoming match against old foes Argentina should provide Joachim Low with the opportunity to finalise his midfield plans, where there remain 13 credible candidates for the six available slots alongside automatic picks Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Up front, Cacau, the Brazilian-born striker playing with Stuttgart, has enjoyed a remarkable recent run of form with seven goals in his last three games, thereby making a strong case for his inclusion versus Diego Maradona’s men.
For his part, the embattled Argentinian coach, who has already selected over 100 players since taking over in November 2008, has recalled 31-year-old Walter Samuel, absent from the squad for four years, and Nicolas Burdisso. After the 3-2 and 2-1 victories achieved over Costa Rica and Jamaica respectively, using purely home-based players, El pibe de oro has remobilised his European legion, retaining just three Argentinian league performers this time around.
Against a hungry Egypt side, anxious to erase memories of their failure to qualify for FIFA’s flagship tournament, Fabio Capello is faced with the unenviable task of rebuilding England’s defence. A serious injury to Ashley Cole, the withdrawal of Wayne Bridge for well-publicised domestic issues, and further back problems for Rio Ferdinand – who has managed only 11 club appearances this season – have forced the Italian to look at other options. Leighton Baines and Stephen Warnock will battle it out for a place on the left, while Ryan Shawcross may come in at central defence for his first cap. In the striking department, there is no such doom and gloom for Capello, with Wayne Rooney in the form of his life.
For their clash with Switzerland in St. Gallen, Uruguay will be missing their captain, Diego Lugano, but this setback will be tempered by the return of influential playmaker, Ignacio Gonzalez, absent from international football for over a year. Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has numerous players unavailable but still did not feel it necessary to recall veterans Ludovic Magnin or Hakan Yakin, preferring instead to offer first-time call-ups to Jonathan Rossini, Davide Chiumiento and Xherdan Shaqiri.
First to qualify from the European Zone, the Netherlands will look to measure their progress against a solid United States side, a task they will attempt with Feyenoord defender Ron Peter Vlaar in their ranks, a player who has not featured on the international scene for more than four seasons. Prodigal sons are obviously the order of the day, as the midfielder Bosko Jankovic, sidelined through a knee injury for six months, is also set to be restored to a Serbia team keen to put Algeria – backed by their raucous home crowd – to the sword. Continuing the theme, Portugal will be boosted by the return of Cristiano Ronaldo against China, a match in which the livewire Porto winger Silvestre Varela could make his international debut.
The long shot
Generally recognised to be facing the longest odds of winning the FIFA World Cup after Korea DPR, New Zealand have arranged a jam-packed series of preparatory matches, the first stage of which arrives on Wednesday in Pasadena in the form of CONCACAF giants, Mexico. Prior to facing Honduras, Australia, Serbia and Slovenia, this match should provide a stern test for an All Whites team that are looking to build up as much confidence and experience as possible before embarking on their African adventure.