Familiar foes face friendly tests

International football makes a comeback on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a fixture list boasting 52 friendly games, many of which are not lacking in intrigue or star quality. Six weeks prior to the next round of UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying matches and four months before the kick-off to the 2011 Copa America, national sides will be looking for a welcome morale boost ahead of a return to competitive business.

Among the highlights this week are repeats of the 1982 and 1998 FIFA World Cup™ Finals, between Germany and Italy, and France and Brazil respectively. Elsewhere, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi take their rivalry on to the international stage as part of a highly anticipated clash between Portugal and Argentina. Out-of-form world champions Spain are also in action, as are England, who face a tricky trip to Denmark.

The big match
Germany-Italy, Dortmund, Signal Iduna Park

While this match will conjure up memories of Spain 1982, it also offers the home side an opportunity to gain some revenge for their epic 2-0 extra-time defeat at the hands of the Italians in the semi-final of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, in the very same stadium. The meeting between two of Europe’s big guns on Wednesday is the latest in a long line of highly contested affairs; the countries have played 29 times, with Italy winning 14, Germany seven and eight matches ending in draws.

Both coaches have put faith in players currently displaying excellent domestic form, hence Joachim Low’s decision to once again leave out Michael Ballack and include five players from high-flying Borussia Dortmund: Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels, Kevin Grosskreutz, Marcel Schmelzer and Sven Bender, who could make his international debut.

Opposite number Cesare Prandelli has the double satisfaction of welcoming back experienced goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who has not turned out for La Nazionale since sustaining an injury at South Africa 2010, as well as the eternally contentious figure of Antonio Cassano, who appears to have found a new lease of life at AC Milan, despite not playing for two months prior to joining the Rossoneri.

Prandelli has also brought two new faces into his squad, namely Thiago Motta, the Brazil-born naturalised Italian, and on-song forward Alessandro Matri, who moved on loan from Cagliari to Juventus during the transfer window.

Brazil coach Mano Menezes, whose recent selection decisions have seen the average age of the South Americans’ squad drop from 28 to 25, continues his quest for the perfect playmaker. To this end, he has called up both Jadson from Shakhtar Donetsk and Bayer Leverkusen’s Renato Augusto and has offered Alexandre Pato another chance to shine.

While the Canarinho coach has strengthened the team’s defensive and ball-winning qualities, he is still looking for the right formula going forward. That said, fans’ demands for a return to o jogo bonito (the beautiful game) appear to have been heeded, following the less expansive game practiced during Dunga’s time in charge.

In the opposing dugout, France supremo Laurent Blanc has begun to reap the rewards of moulding a close-knit, confident squad, even though some of the players he has called up, such as Yoann Gourcuff and Karim Benzema, are presently exhibiting some patchy form at club level.

Another coach in the process of rebuilding is Sergio Batista, who has made it clear to his Argentina players that winning the upcoming Copa America should be viewed as a top priority. The former FIFA World Cup-winner has left out a host of big names for the match against Portugal in Geneva, including Carlos Tevez, Martin Demichelis, Gabriel Heinze, Sergio Aguero and Mario Bolatti, as well as the injured Gonzalo Higuain.

Two players who are sure to play a part – on opposite sides of the pitch – are Ronaldo and Messi. With 24 goals apiece in the Spanish top tier this season, both defences will need to be at their most alert to subdue the talented pair.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, who was awarded the honorary title of Marquis by King Juan Carlos on Friday, has seen his world champions fall from grace in recent months, as they succumbed to resounding 4-1 and 4-0 defeats to Argentina and Portugal respectively. Despite the absences of Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas, the Spanish squad, which contains seven Barcelona players and five from Real Madrid, should still have too much strength in depth to be troubled by midweek opponents Colombia.

England, deprived of the services of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard through injury, and coming off the back of a 0-0 draw with Montenegro and a 2-1 defeat to France, will look to turn things around away to Denmark.

The Three Lions’ fitness problems pale in comparison to those affecting the Dutch squad, which have seen Nigel de Jong, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart all pull out, this with coach Bert van Marwijk having already decided to rest the recently recuperated Arjen Robben. The game against Austria will consequently provide 20-year-old Utrecht midfield man Kevin Strootman with a chance to stake his claim for a place in the team.

Player to watch
Ghana midfielder Sulley Muntari, previously expelled from the national side for disciplinary reasons, has been recalled by new Serbian coach Goran Stevanovic for the Black Stars’ friendly encounter with Togo on Tuesday. The match represents a pivotal moment in the career of the combative midfielder, who, having been dropped from Ghana’s 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations squad, was then disciplined following the defeat to Uruguay in the FIFA World Cup quarter-final in South Africa a few months later.

The stat
1992 –
The year of Brazil’s last triumph over France (a 2-0 friendly win). Since then, Les Bleus have notched up four victories and two draws in fixtures between the sides. Their last defeat to the Brazilians in a competitive match dates all the way back to the semi-final of the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, won 5-2 by A Seleção.

What they said
“I certainly don’t want to see a repeat of what happened against Portugal. The players have to realise that they should always try to give the best possible account of themselves when they are representing their national side, and never view it as just another match, because there are a lot of players waiting in the wings who would be glad to take their place.” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.

Have your say
When, if ever, will Michael Ballack regain his place in Germany’s starting XI?