Italy and France sight South Africa
© AFP

Reigning champions Italy and 2006 runners-up France can start training their thoughts firmly on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ if successful in qualifiers in the next few days.

France have a double-header in Lithuania on Saturday, and then on Wednesday in Paris, while Italy travel to Montenegro before a top-of-the-table clash against Republic of Ireland in Bari.

Coach Raymond Domenech, whose performance is still under the microscope from a demanding French media, leads his side in Kaunas with the aim of shoring up their weakness in defence facing free-kicks. Central defender Philippe Mexes has battled back after his disastrous showing in the 3-1 defeat to Austria in September last year, when at fault in all three goals, and when France's defensive frailty to set-pieces was exposed.

Domenech said: "We have to be able to suffer. Those who imagine we will win easily by making neat one-twos in the opposition's box don't realise we will have a fight on our hands and we'll need to be very solid." Conceding goals from free-kicks has cursed France since the FIFA World Cup final, having let in 14 out of 30 since the defeat to Italy in June 2006.

We have players who can head a ball well but they aren't necessarily the most physically strong,
France defender Gael Clichy.

Defender Gael Clichy said: "Before the Austria game, we really worked hard on free-kicks yet conceded two goals from them. We have players who can head a ball well but they aren't necessarily the most physically strong either. We know teams like Lithuania will try to take advantage of that so it's up to use to avoid conceding too many corners and making fouls on the edge of our box."

Serbia lead Group 7 from Lithuania, both on nine points from four matches, while France are third with four points from a match less. Romania host Serbia in the other game in the pool.

Champions look for winning formula
Italy coach Marcello Lippi gave a hint as to his starting team for Saturday's match in Montenegro by separating 11 players from his squad to work alone in midweek training. The 'team' comprised Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, centre-backs Fabio Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini, full-backs Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso, midfielders Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Angelo Palombo and forwards Vincenzo Iaquinta and Udinese pair Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella.

If that is indeed Lippi's first choice team it means he will be adopting a 4-3-3 formation with Quagliarella and Di Natale flanking Iaquinta up front. Italy head Group 8 ahead of the Republic of Ireland, both on ten points. Montenegro are fourth in the six-team group with two points and have yet to win a match.

Meanwhile, Liverpool's Albert Riera warned his Spanish teammates that Turkey, who face the UEFA EURO 2008 champions on Saturday, are a "very aggressive" team which "plays as one." Riera said: "Turkey is a proud team, very patriotic," he said. "They have a very aggressive game, hard. It's a team that plays as one," the midfielder said.

Germany captain Michael Ballack wants a solid win as much as a goal-bonanza on Saturday when his side tackle European minnows Liechtenstein following back-to-back home defeats. Defeats to Norway in February and England last November have dented the team's confidence and the national team needs a convincing win over tiny Liechtenstein which is 151st in FIFA's world rankings. The principality is just 160 square kilometres and the national team is largely made up of part-time footballers.