Just seven weeks on from the Final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Europe’s national teams are back on official duty tomorrow as the qualifying competition for UEFA EURO 2012 gets under way.
The qualifiers will run until October 2011, with 51 teams having been drawn into nine groups: six with six teams and three with five. The winners of each section and the best second-placed team will advance to the finals in Poland and Ukraine, who qualify automatically as co-hosts. The eight other group runners-up will battle it out in the play-offs for the remaining four places at what will be the last 16-team European finals.
Though the continent’s players are still easing their way back into competition after the summer break, there are plenty of enticing encounters on the 23-match card. Aside from Germany’s intriguing trip to Belgium, revamped Italy travel to Estonia, France entertain Belarus in Laurent Blanc’s first official match in charge, and injury-hit England play host to Bulgaria.
Fabio Capello’s hopes of an upturn in his side’s fortunes after their disappointing showing in South Africa have been hit by a rash of injury-enforced withdrawals. Joining skipper John Terry on the sidelines are Frank Lampard, Peter Crouch, Bobby Zamora, Phil Jagielka and goalkeepers Scott Carson and Ben Foster. Having initially been discarded by the Italian coach ahead of South Africa 2010, Joleon Lescott, Adam Johnson, Kieran Gibbs and Gary Cahill now find themselves back in the squad. Though England have yet to lose to the Bulgarians in eight meetings, the two sides drew twice in the qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2000. A repeat stalemate against a team ranked 43 in the world will do little to raise English morale.
Playing the continuity card, Germany coach Joachim Low will be travelling to Belgium for a high-profile Group A meeting with 17 of the 23 players he took to South Africa. Still to recover fully from his ankle injury, Michael Ballack will not be making the trip to Brussels, with Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger continuing to deputise. On the bright side for Ballack, Low has cut short the debate on the team captaincy, announcing that the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder will be handed the skipper’s armband when he returns.
The match marks the official debut of new Diables Rouges coach Georges Leekens, who has recalled midfielder Timmy Simons and called up Genk striker Jelle Vossen, the Belgian league’s top scorer, for the first time. In the other game in the section Guus Hiddink begins his reign as Turkey coach with a trip to Kazakhstan.
In Group C Cesare Prandelli, Italy’s new man at the helm, takes a much-changed Squadra Azzurra to Estonia, with four new faces - Luca Antonelli, Cesare Bovo, Lorenzo De Silvestri and Daniele Gastaldello - in the squad. Prandelli will go for experience up front, however, pairing Alberto Gilardino and Giampaolo Pazzini, with Antonio Cassano and Andrea Pirlo slotting in just behind them.
Hampered by injuries, positional changes, a shortage of match practice and some much-publicised suspensions, new France coach Laurent Blanc has named an unfamiliar squad for the visit of Belarus in Group D. Retaining only nine of the players that flattered to deceive at South Africa 2010, the ex-Bordeaux boss has the task of perming an effective strike force from Kevin Gameiro, Guillaume Hoarau, Karim Benzema, Loic Remy and Louis Saha.
Following their narrow miss against Spain a few weeks ago and the retirements of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Sander Boschker and Andre Ooijer, Group E heavyweights the Netherlands face a relatively gentle reintroduction to the international arena when they travel to San Marino. With Arjen Robben still injured and Ryan Babel, Edson Braafheid and Stijn Schaars all lacking form, coach Bert van Marwijk has drafted Theo Janssen, Hedwiges Maduro, Jeremain Lens, Vurnon Anita, Erik Pieters, Piet Velthuizen and Ron Vlaar into his squad.
Group H favourites Portugal begin their campaign at home to Cyprus without Paulo Ferreira and Simao Sabrosa, who have both retired from national duty for “personal reasons”, while the onerous task of filling in for the injured Cristiano Ronaldo has fallen to Ricardo Quaresma.
Finally, reigning world and European champions Spain return to action with a trip to Liechtenstein in Group I, with Vicente del Bosque bringing in Osasuna defender Nacho Monreal to replace the injured Carles Puyol. In the pool's other game, Scotland make the trip to Lithuania.
Player to watch
The outrageously talented Antonio Cassano is known as much for his fiery temperament as for his unique gift for improvisation. Now 28, Cassano has the opportunity to redeem himself as the attacking fulcrum of a new-look Italy side.
0 - The number of times that the reigning European champions have successfully defended their title. 1972 winners West Germany came close to achieving the feat in 1976, losing on penalties to Czechoslovakia in the final.
What they said
“A good team is one in which everyone tells the truth. Players don’t need to be friends with each other. What matters is that they respect each other’s qualities and have the guts to be honest about things,” Bert van Marwijk, Netherlands coach.
Have your say?
Can Spain qualify for the finals and retain their European title?