The first set of European Zone qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ gets underway this Friday and Saturday, with no fewer than 24 intriguing fixtures on the agenda. All 53 UEFA member associations will take part in Round 1, which will see the nine group winners qualify automatically, while Round 2 will consist of four home-and-away play-offs between the eight best runners-up.
While reigning world champions Spain, placed in the five-team Group I, will sit out the first weekend of action, there are hugely important games spread throughout the pools, many of which appear difficult to predict.
After a highly disappointing showing at the recent UEFA European Championships, during which they exited after losing all three of their group matches, the Netherlands will be very keen to both turn the page and steady the ship, especially as their last friendly outing just three weeks ago saw them lose 4-2 at the hands of Belgium.
Louis van Gaal, who replaced Bert van Marwijk at the helm of the Oranje in July, has already rung the changes, omitting Nigel de Jong, Gregory van der Wiel, Vurnon Anita, Khalid Boulahrouz, Rafael Van der Vaart and Ibrahim Afellay from his squad. The Dutch supremo has suggested that the players in question – who all moved to new clubs over the summer – might not be completely focused on the crucial encounter with Turkey, and has placed his faith in stalwarts such as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who has been confirmed as the team’s first-choice striker.
Over in the Turkish camp, Abdullah Avci, who has been at the helm of the Crescent Stars since Guus Hiddink’s resignation in November 2011, has lately been striving to channel the huge passion surrounding the national team into a greater level of "discipline and concentration" in his charges.
The other games
One of the most open-looking pools, Group A contains three countries from the former Yugoslavia and two nations from Great Britain. The remaining team, Belgium, whose current starting XI is packed with talented stars such as on-song Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard, are likely to fancy their chances of claiming the automatic qualifying slot. As any points secured away from home will doubtless be at a premium, Les Diables Rouges' first official match under Marc Wilmots in Cardiff should be a closely contested affair.
With Mario Balotelli absent due to eye surgery, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has continued to place an emphasis on youth, bringing in promising newcomers Marco Verratti, Fabio Borini, Mattia Destro and Lorenzo Insigne for I Nazionale’s awkward-looking trip to Bulgaria. Denmark, meanwhile, will welcome a Czech contingent to Copenhagen that is significantly handicapped by injuries to key personnel, including Vaclav Pilar, Tomas Rosicky and Daniel Kolar.
As the Germans welcome a modest Faroes side to Hannover, Joachim Low has decided not to take any unnecessary risks ahead of his charges’ vital clash with dark horses Sweden in October. He has even left out Bastian Schweinsteiger, so the midfield fulcrum is able to work his way back to full fitness in time.
The Hungarians, who recently pulled off an impressive 2-1 friendly victory over the Czech Republic, will want to get off to a good start versus Andorra, in a group where they can realistically aim to finish in second place behind the Dutch.
Switzerland, who raised eyebrows with a notable 4-2 away win in a friendly with Croatia last month, and Norway, who have not qualified for a FIFA World Cup since 1998, will both have designs on top spot in this tight-looking section.
Newly installed Russia coach Fabio Capello will oversee the beginning of a new era for the former Soviet nation against Northern Ireland, and has already put his own stamp on the team by dropping fan favourite Andrei Arshavin, who captained the side at EURO 2012. Portuguese supporters, meanwhile, will be hoping that Cristiano Ronaldo’s current discomfort at Real Madrid has no negative effect on his performances for A Selecção das Quinas.
The three teams expected to challenge for first place in Group G – Greece, Slovakia and Bosnia-Herzegovina – are all faced with opening-day away matches, and will be anxious to avoid any sort of slip-up that might damage their qualifying aspirations.
Chelsea skipper John Terry, now 32, has been recalled to the England set-up by Roy Hodgson ahead of the Three Lions’ trip to Moldova. The Three Lions coach has also brought in two of Terry’s team-mates at club level, Daniel Sturridge and Ryan Bertrand, bringing the number of Blues’ players in the squad to six, compared to three from Manchester City and three from Manchester United.
Following in the footsteps of Laurent Blanc, fellow 1998 FIFA World Cup-winner Didier Deschamps has now grasped the reins of the French national side. Les Bleus have been searching for the ideal style and formation to get the best out of the many individual talents present in their squad, and will hope that things finally click into place away to Finland.
Player to watch
Almost 15 months after his last cap, which was earned in a 1-0 win in Poland on 9 June 2011, Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby has returned to a France line-up in need of a commanding presence in the centre of the pitch. The former Auxerre player, who was beset by injuries last season but appears to be back to full fitness this term, has stated that he feels no apprehension about his return, and is simply "eager to make up for lost time".
2.46 – The average number of points per match historically obtained by Germany during the qualifying process for FIFA’s flagship tournament. The three-time world champions can also boast a remarkable average total of 2.9 goals per match.
What they said
“I’m still hugely enthusiastic, in good physical condition and haven't lost my will to win. When you’re able to combine those three aspects, you can keep playing as long as you want,” Italy’s 34-year-old captain, Gianluigi Buffon.
Have your say
Who will be the surprise package of this European qualifying campaign?