Hardly has the dust settled on Spain's conquest of Europe than the cream of the international game turn their sights to the two-year qualifying trek leading to the first ever FIFA World Cup™ finals to be held in Africa.

A place on the plane to South Africa 2010 is what's at stake as Spain look to confirm their exalted status atop the FIFA rankings, while European neighbours France, England, Italy and Germany bid to close the gap.

Under Fabio Capello, England have played out five underwhelming friendlies which culminated in a fortuitous draw last month against the Czech Republic at Wembley. On Saturday, they should see off Andorra in Barcelona, but a trip to Zagreb on Wednesday to face a Croatia side, which ended the reign of Capello's hapless predecessor Steve McClaren, will be a more challenging proposition.

The traditional injury scare which accompanies England on such occasions arrived with the news that experienced defender Rio Ferdinand will travel despite missing training, as he bids to shrug off a sore back. Were the Manchester United man to sit out the Andorra game, Capello could call on either Matthew Upson or Joleon Lescott to partner skipper John Terry, or even Ferdinand's clubmate Wes Brown.

England are already without Liverpool dynamo Steven Gerrard, ruled out following groin surgery, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick. But Capello, who has gambled by leaving out Michael Owen, has responded by handing a first call-up to Fulham's combative Jimmy Bullard.

Croatia impressed at the UEFA EURO 2008 finals in the summer and have in Slaven Bilic a coach whose reputation is such that he has been linked with the vacant manager's position at former club West Ham. The Croatians start their qualifiers at home to Kazakhstan, who have already seen off Andorra.

Germany will continue their push back to prominence after Joachim Low's side managed to reach the EURO final without looking convincing - something Die Mannschaft had also pulled off under Rudi Voller in reaching the final of the FIFA World Cup in 2002.

Even in the absence of injured veterans Torsten Frings and Michael Ballack, the three-time world champions will surely knock over Liechtenstein before a midweek trip to Finland taxes them rather more. "," said midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger of a German side which has not tasted silverware since EURO 1996.

We are young and we are hungry

Germany midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger on Joachim Low's German side

World champions Italy start off their campaign away to Cyprus on Saturday before hosting Georgia. The Azzurri are once again under the stewardship of Marcello Lippi, back at the helm two years on from supervising the FIFA World Cup win over France, having replaced Roberto Donadoni.

Lippi has recalled captain Fabio Cannavaro, who missed EURO 2008 with injury, and Bayern Munich forward Luca Toni to his squad after they were omitted for an August friendly with Austria.

Dumped out
It is just six years since France were the reigning World and European champions, yet their EURO flop has dumped them out of the FIFA top ten. Turkey, by contrast, have broken into that exclusive club, and coach Raymond Domenech has much to prove after persuading his superiors to keep faith with him.

"I've always approached the game by telling myself 'this could be the last match'. On my arrival in 2004, I'm not sure the pressure was any less," insists the man who in the aftermath of EURO elimination preferred to propose to his girlfriend rather than dwell on his charges' shortcomings, or his own.

With a trip to Austria on Saturday, midfielder Samir Nasri says the French are banishing all memories of their June misery. "We're in the mood for revenge, and want to do well to show another side (to our game), one with more quality than you saw at the EURO," said the Arsenal star.

Vicente del Bosque, meanwhile, is out for a home win over Bosnia as he opens the post-Luis Aragones era with Spain having already seen off Denmark 3-0 in a friendly. "I'm not going to change anything," Del Bosque insisted when he took charge. But two changes have been forced upon him, with Liverpool's Fernando Torres out with a hamstring injury, and Valencia midfielder David Silva suffering a twisted ankle.

Portugal, now under the tutelage of Luiz Felipe Scolari's successor Carlos Queiroz, start off with an away trip to Malta, while Swedish veteran and now skipper Henrik Larsson should win his 100th cap away to Albania as he targets a fourth FIFA World Cup finals appearance.

The nine European group winners qualify directly for the finals along with the winners of four playoffs between the eight best second-placed teams, giving Europe 13 of the 32 places at the finals.


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