Reigning world champions Spain are one of the main attractions of Matchday 2 of the European qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, making their campaign entrance in Georgia.
Tuesday’s 24 matches also feature early top-of-the table tussles between Belgium and Croatia in Group A, Hungary and the Netherlands in Group D and Switzerland and Albania in Group E, not to mention a neighbourly meeting between Germany and Austria in Group C.
The big game
Belgium v Croatia, Stade du Roi Baudouin, Brussels, 20:45
This match pits together the top two in Group A, with an ambitious and gifted Belgium side hosting the experienced and no less talented Croatians. Marc Wilmots’ men made their intentions clear in their opening game by earning a 2-0 win in Wales. Absent from the last two world finals, Les Diables Rouges have designs on winning the group and have the firepower to do just that, with many of their players appearing in Europe’s top leagues, among them star man Eden Hazard.
For their part, the Croatians - who kicked off their Group A campaign with an uninspiring 1-0 defeat of Macedonia - are anxious to erase memories of UEFA EURO 2012, when they came within an ace of knocking out eventual champions Spain in their final group game only to be eliminated themselves. Deservedly featuring in the top ten of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Croatia have no shortage of skilled performers to call on, among them captain Darijo Srna and striker Eduardo.
The other games
Scotland v Macedonia
Serbia v Wales
Belgium v Croatia
Serbia have lost only three times in 20 years at their Marakana fortress in Belgrade and will start as firm favourites against Wales, despite Saturday’s goalless stalemate away to Scotland.
Italy v Malta
Bulgaria v Armenia
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli dubbed his side’s performance in Friday’s 2-2 draw with Bulgaria as “not good enough” and has demanded that they reassert themselves for the visit of Malta. They will have to do so without Daniele de Rossi, who picked up an injury in Sofia. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians have the chance to build on their encouraging start when they take on surprise early pacesetters Armenia at home.
Sweden v Kazakhstan
Austria v Germany
Though shorn of several first-choice players, Germany will not be lacking in confidence when they travel to Austria, who are making their group debut. Of the 37 previous meetings between the two sides, the Germans have won 23, drawn six and lost only seven.
Romania v Andorra
Hungary v Netherlands
Turkey v Estonia
After grinding out a 2-0 win over Turkey, the Dutch will now put themselves to the test away to Hungary, who eased to a 5-1 victory in Andorra in their group opener and boast no less than 14 foreign-based players in their 23-man squad. Having kicked off with a 2-0 defeat of Estonia, Romania face a straightforward assignment at home to the Andorrans and could be sitting top of the section by the evening’s end.
Norway v Slovenia
Cyprus v Iceland
Switzerland v Albania
In charge of Switzerland since July 2008, Ottmar Hitzfeld could be about to reap the dividends of all his hard work. Having started off with an impressive 2-0 win in Slovenia, the Swiss have the chance to open up a lead at the top against an Albania side that sprang something of a surprise by beating Cyprus 3-1. Elsewhere, the losers of the tie between Norway and Slovenia, two sides fancied to do well in the section, will find themselves with a lot of ground to make up.
Northern Ireland v Luxembourg
Israel v Russia
Portugal v Azerbaijan
After scraping past Luxembourg on Friday, Portugal will be intent on raising their game against unfancied Azerbaijan, while Fabio Capello’s Russia will be anxious not to drop points on an awkward trip to Israel, as they continue their bid to beat the Portuguese to top spot.
Bosnia-Herzegovina v Latvia
Slovakia v Liechtenstein
Greece v Lithuania
Winners on the road in their opening encounters, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece will be eyeing three more points when they entertain Latvia and Lithuania respectively. In the other match in what seems a wide-open group, Slovakia face an altogether easier assignment at home to Liechtenstein.
England v Ukraine
San Marino v Montenegro
Poland v Moldova
Three months after defeating them 1-0 to advance to the quarter-finals of EURO 2012, England take on Ukraine again, this time at Wembley. Home coach Roy Hodgson faces a defensive reshuffle however, having lost both John Terry and Ashley Cole to injury.
France v Belarus
Georgia v Spain
The defending world champions make their qualification bow with a testing trip to Georgia, while France will continue their rebuilding process in the centre of defence and midfield when they host bogey team Belarus, having opened up with a fine 1-0 win in Finland.
Player to watch
Spain’s all-time leading goalscorer with 52 goals in 83 appearances, David Villa makes his return to official action on Tuesday, eight months after breaking his tibia in Barcelona’s FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011 semi-final win over Al-Sadd. “I didn’t enjoy being out at all,” he said. “I missed the national team, not just for the matches but the get-togethers and the great atmosphere in the camp.”
118 - Iceland’s current position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, one they belied by beating 34th-ranked Norway on Friday to go joint-top in Group E.
What they said
“Cristiano Ronaldo is fine. Didn’t you see him? He was laughing and joking and he’s not sad at all,” Portugal midfielder Nani on his international team-mate, who recently admitted to being down in the dumps at Real Madrid.
Have your say
Will Belgium finish top in Group A?