European giants on guard
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Having managed to avoid major mishaps in their opening UEFA Euro 2012 qualifiers, the challenge facing some of Europe's top national teams is to sustain their winning momentum as injuries and other distractions begin to surface.

European heavyweights such as Spain, Netherlands, Germany and Italy have all made 100 percent starts to their qualifications campaigns. Meanwhile, Portugal and France have had less than optimal results in their opening games.

Spain kicked off their Group I campaign with a 4-0 dismantling of Liechtenstein, but they will face Lithuania on Friday without a number of influential players. Barcelona playmaker Xavi heads a list of stars including Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez, Jesus Navas and Fernando Torres, all of whom played in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ final, to have been ruled out by injury.

Valencia's Pablo Hernandez and Aritz Aduriz are among the players to have benefited, with coach Vicente del Bosque having drafted them into his squad for the home game in the western city of Salamanca.

"Xavi is important to the team but there are other players who have the calmness and the confidence to do his job," said centre-back Carlos Marchena.

Germany, third place finishers at South Africa 2010, have been hit with similar problems. Influential midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger has been ruled out of the Group A clash with Turkey in Berlin due to an ankle injury, while skipper Michael Ballack is likely to be out until next year after fracturing his tibia.

"These things happen after a World Cup," coach Joachim Low told German daily Bild in reference to Schweinsteiger's absence.

"The players have only had a short time to prepare for the next season and the risk of injury is of course higher," added Low.

Germany currently lead Group A after a 1-0 win in Belgium and an overwhelming 6-1 win against Azerbaijan. Friday's match against Turkey is likely to take place in a charged atmosphere due to the large Turkish support-base in Berlin.

Around 30,000 Turkey supporters are expected at the match, and visiting midfielder Hamit Altintop has fanned the flames by criticising Mesut Ozil's motives for choosing to represent Germany despite having Turkish parents.

"If he had opted for Turkey, he would have not played in the World Cup and would not be at Real Madrid," said Altintop, who was born in Germany and plays for Bayern Munich.

"I knew I would always play for Turkey. I am very, very grateful to Germany. I have learned a lot and been given a lot of chances," said Altintop.

Italy on the road
Another player steeling himself to face a tough crowd is Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, whose team take on Northern Ireland at Belfast's Windsor Park.

Victories against Estonia and the Faroe Islands sent the 2006 world champions top of Group C, but Chiellini is anticipating a sterner test in the forthcoming matches against Northern Ireland and Serbia.

"These are crucial matches. We have to be ready for a sporting battle. Serbia are more technical but they are two equally difficult matches." said the Juventus centre-back.

Portuguese struggle, French regroup
In stark contrast to Spain, Germany and Italy, Portugal have endured a torrid start to their qualifying attempt. The UEFA Euro 2004 finalists drew 4-4 at home to unfancied Cyprus in their Group H opener before losing 1-0 to Norway, prompting the departure of coach Carlos Queiroz.

They welcome back captain Cristiano Ronaldo for the visit of Denmark on Friday though, and the Real Madrid forward says he is ready to come to his country's rescue.

"I feel better and better. I feel confident and ready to help the Seleccao," said Ronaldo, after netting twice in Real Madrid's 6-1 defeat of Deportivo La Coruna at the weekend.

"We're not where we should be. Now there isn't much room for error. We have to win," he added.

France, like Portugal, began their qualifying bid in underwhelming style when they went down 1-0 at home to Belarus, but they responded by beating chief Group D rivals Bosnia-Hercegovina 2-0 in Sarajevo in their last outing. Laurent Blanc's men tackle Romania at the Stade de France on Saturday.

The Netherlands visit Moldova in Group E, with Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk having decided to drop Nigel de Jong after the Manchester City player injured Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa in an English Premier League game on Sunday.

England, who won their opening two matches, are not in action until a home game with Group G co-leaders Montenegro next Tuesday.