Italy, the FIFA World Cup™ holders, start out on the long road in defence of their crown in a section that pits them against Bulgaria from the group of second seeds and the Republic of Ireland who will be under new management when the qualifying series begins.
Against both those nations, USA 1994 will figure large in the Italians' thoughts. The Azzurri were beaten finalists that year and also lost their first game of the tournament - against Ireland. Their journey showed how much they improved after that initial disappointment and in the semi-finals they edged out Bulgaria 2-1. Ireland will lock horns once again with Cyprus - they met in the 2006 preliminaries and also in the qualifying group for EURO 2008 - while Georgia and Montenegro, who are making their qualifying debut having separated from Serbia last year, make up the six-team group.
The 2006 world champions are expected to make all the running in Group 8. Under Roberto Donadoni, who replaced Marcello Lippi who decided to step down after their triumph in Germany last summer, Italy made a disappointing start to their EURO 2008 qualifiers. They were held at home by Lithuania and then went down to France who got a measure of revenge for their defeat in the 2006 Final. However Italy's enduring quality came through in the end as they headed a group containing France, a resurgent Scotland and Ukraine.
Republic of Ireland: They have introduced a number of young players over the course of EURO 2008 qualifying and they will be all the better for the experience. In addition they will have a new manager in charge - and with virtually a year to get to know his players - by the time the 2010 preliminaries start.
Cyprus: A difficult team to beat at home. In the preliminaries for next summer's European Championship finals they beat Ireland 5-2 in Nicosia and held Germany 1-1.
The players to watch
Andrea Pirlo (ITA), Antonio Di Natale (ITA), Dimitar Berbatov (BUL), Martin Petrov (BUL), Kevin Doyle (IRL), Robbie Keane (IRL)
The crunch match
After qualifying for the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups - finishing fourth at the USA event - Bulgaria then suffered an international slump but the generation of Dimitar Berbatov and co. have restored their fortunes and they will provide a stern test for Italy in their two meetings.
A look back
Having removed reigning champions Germany at the quarter-final stage of USA 1994 there was much expectation in Bulgaria that Hristo Stoichkov and his team could upset Italy as well and reach their first FIFA World Cup Final. But having escaped from their group by the skin of their teeth, and then edging out Nigeria on penalties, destiny was in Italy's favour and two early goals from Roberto Baggio saw them through 2-1 in the Giants Stadium, New York.
16: The number of FIFA World Cup finals that Italy have taken part in. They were only absent for two tournaments - 1930 and 1958.
Did you know?
Current national team coach Roberto Donadoni was in the Italy team who crashed out of the 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cups, in the semi-finals and Final respectively, in penalty shoot-outs.
Bulgaria are long overdue a place on the FIFA World Cup finals stage. Having missed out in both 2002 and 2006 can they make it third time lucky in the new century.