Big guns take friendly fire
Qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ picks up where it left off this week, but not for the big guns of Europe and South America, who have another month to prepare before rejoining the preliminary fray. With this end in mind, there are no fewer than 35 friendly encounters taking place in all four corners of the globe, including bill-topping encounters such as France-Argentina, Brazil-Italy and Spain-England.
As well as offering national-team coaches valuable time with their squads after a lengthy period without international meetings, a number of supremos appear set to test out new formations or give young hopefuls their chance. Brazil coach Dunga, meanwhile, has decided to only call up European-based players partly so as not to weaken those Brazilian clubs in midweek Copa Libertadores action. Dunga's Argentinian counterpart Diego Maradona has followed a similar tack, including just three domestic-based footballers in his Albiceleste squad.
The big match
Spain-England, Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Seville, 22.00 CET
This encounter between UEFA EURO 2008 winners Spain and an England side rejuvenated under Fabio Capello remains full of promise despite high-profile injury absentees such as Carles Puyol, Cesc Fabregas, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. The last time the two teams met, on 7 February 2007 at Old Trafford, a sweet strike from Andres Iniesta sealed a 1-0 Spanish success.
La Roja, who have enjoyed a seamless transition since Vicente Del Bosque took over from Luis Aragones, are heavily indebted to both Barcelona and Liverpool - suppliers of five squad members apiece. Capello, meanwhile, a Liga winner in each of his two spells in Spain with Real Madrid, had this to say: "It's always fantastic to play against a stronger side. That way the win means even more."
The other matches
Ahead of his team's clash with Norway, Germany head coach Joachim Low has called up two new players in Andreas Beck and Mesut Osil. The duo are currently enjoying contrasting fortunes on the Bundesliga front, with Beck flying high with newly promoted Hoffenheim and Osil's Werder Bremen way off the pace in mid-table. Of the Mannschaft's established performers, Michael Ballack and Torsten Frings both make their returns but there is no place for Lukas Podolski, who is out of favour and struggling for match time at Bayern Munich.
Over in the Russian camp, it is the non-inclusion of attacking pair Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko for the friendly against Turkey that has earned most column inches this week. Coach Guus Hiddink has instead chosen to allow Arsenal's transfer-window capture Arshavin more time to adapt to his new surroundings and Tottenham Hotspur striker Pavlyuchenko is also conspicuous by his absence.
Prior to Portugal's match against Finland, under-fire Selecção das Quinas coach Carlos Queiroz has called on three new faces, Eliseu (Malaga), Goncalo Brandao (Siena) and Orlando Sa (Braga), in a bid to revive his team's fortunes.
Shorn of midfield schemers Juan Roman Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron, it will be intriguing to see how Maradona's Argentina cope in Marseille against Germany 2006 runners-up France. The presence of on-form Barça club-mates Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry leading opposing forward lines should guarantee plenty of attacking excitement.
Given the weather conditions in Europe at present, Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk has wisely chosen to take his Oranje squad to the warmer climes of Tunisia. 2010 FIFA World Cup hosts South Africa, for their part, are sure to face a stern test against a Chile side causing a stir in South American qualifying.
Topping the bill though is the match-up in the Emirates Stadium in north London between the last two teams to be crowned world champions, Brazil and Italy (click on the link on the right for an extended preview).
Player to watch
The 25-year-old striker Eduardo da Silva, who fractured his left tibia in Arsenal's match with Birmingham City on 23 February 2008, should return for Croatia against Romania. "He's ready," said national coach Slaven Bilic of a player who last pulled on the checked jersey on 6 February 2008. "He'll play for 30 minutes or one half," added Bilic, as per his agreement with Gunners manager Arsene Wenger.
Should he take the field against Spain, David Beckham will draw level with the late Bobby Moore on 108 England caps. However, he would still remain some way short of Peter Shilton's 125-cap record.
"Messi is capable of turning a match on its head. Even as the national coach of an opposing team, it's a pleasure to watch players of his ability," France coach Raymond Domenech.
Road to South Africa continues
While many of the game's biggest names are involved in friendly action on European soil, the continent's three most important games take place in the FIFA World Cup preliminary arena. Republic of Ireland's home match with Georgia is arguably the most intriguing of the three, while Northern Ireland travel to San Marino, and Albania can go top of Group 1 with victory in Malta.
Have your say
Do England have what it takes to prevent Spain making it 29 games without defeat?