After watching the rest of the world get down to FIFA World Cup™ qualifying business some time ago, Europe's hopefuls will start the long journey to South Africa 2010 on Saturday, with 24 qualifiers taking place across the old continent. Italy, France, Germany and Portugal, the four semi-finalists from Germany 2006, all feature high on the card and while shocks and surprises look unlikely, Europe's major players would be well advised not to take anything for granted at this early stage of the season.
The weekend also sees some high-profile coaches take charge in their first competitive matches, most notably Spain's Vicente Del Bosque, while Marcello Lippi returns to international duty with reigning world champions Italy.
The big game
Spain-Bosnia-Herzegovina, Saturday 6 September, Murcia, 22.00 (local time)
The European champions and current FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking leaders will have to make do without two key men when they entertain the Bosnians on Saturday, with striker Fernando Torres and midfielder David Silva both out through injury. Although Del Bosque has called up Barcelona starlet Bojan Krkic as cover, the task of leading the line will fall to David Villa, while the midfield duo of Diego Capel and Santi Cazorla have both been wearing the first-team bibs in training this week. Still basking in the afterglow of their side's triumph at UEFA EURO 2008, the home fans will be expecting nothing less than victory. The last time the two met on Spanish soil, however, the Balkan side came away with a creditable 1-1 draw.
England supremo Fabio Capello take his new charges to Barcelona for a Group 6 opener against Andorra in his first official outing. And while three points should be England's for the taking, memories are still fresh of their last meeting with the part-timers in a EURO 2008 qualifier, when Steve McClaren's side were held goalless for 45 minutes before running out 3-0 winners.
Traditionally slow starters in qualifying competitions, Italy will need no reminding of the pitfalls they face when they travel to Cyprus, while Germany should have no problems disposing of Liechtenstein despite the absences of Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings. Carlos Queiroz's Portugal will be expecting a similarly easy ride in Malta.
France's record of never having never lost an official match in Vienna will be put to the test when they take on an Austria side heartened by a recent 2-2 draw in a friendly with Italy. Les Bleus coach Raymond Domenech is under severe scrutiny after a dismal showing at EURO 2008, and with the French FA set to review his position after three qualifying matches anything less than a victory on Saturday could seal his fate.
Kakha Kaladze is hoping Georgia can bring a smile to the faces of the people back home when they take on Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic of Ireland on neutral ground in Mainz, Germany. Elsewhere, Ottmar Hitzfeld makes his much-awaited debut in the Switzerland dugout in a potentially decisive Group 2 encounter away to Israel.
Player to watch
Veteran Swedish goalscorer Henrik Larsson will win his 100th cap when he turns out against Albania in Tirana. The former Celtic and Manchester United striker, now with Helsingborg, will also be sporting the captain's armband for the occasion.
Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been drawn together in the same section for the third consecutive time. In the qualifiers for Korea/Japan 2002 the Spaniards earned a 4-1 win at home and 2-1 victory in Sarajevo, but when the two sides met again on the road to Germany 2006 it was a slightly different story. The Bosnians held the future European champions to a brace of 1-1 draws on both occasions and came within a whisker of winning the away fixture in Valencia when a Carlos Marchena equaliser six minutes into stoppage time spared Spanish blushes.
What they said
"We're convinced we've got the players to make a big impression in major competitions, which is something we haven't done for the last few years now. I hope that's about to change," England forward Wayne Rooney.
Have your say
Could Malta, Andorra, Liechtenstein or Cyprus spring a surprise by toppling some big names? Can Capello's England kick off their campaign with three points? What tactics do you think your team should be pursuing? Give us your thoughts by clicking on 'Add your comment' below.
McDonald's FIFA World Cup Predictor
Austria-France, Argentina-Paraguay and Chile-Brazil are among the matches on the opening round of the McDonald's FIFA World Cup Predictor. If you haven't already, be sure to sign up and take a shot at winning a fanstastic trip to South Africa 2010.