Euro big guns hit qualifying trail
France coach Laurent Blanc is hoping the surprisingly good form of his squad helps get Les Bleus back on a positive footing as they seek revenge against Belarus in a UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier in Minsk.
Italy, Sweden and Croatia are also among the more fancied teams in action on Friday as qualifying for next year's championships - to be held jointly in Poland and Ukraine - resume following a two-month break.
Since replacing Raymond Domenech at the helm of Les Bleus, Blanc has steered France to top spot in Group D with four wins from five games. Their only defeat so far was against Belarus at the Stade de France last year.
"We didn't play well (against Belarus)," conceded Blanc Wednesday following a two-day training camp which calmed any lingering concerns he had about the match fitness of key players.
"We were too sluggish and lacked bite against a team that defended well and scored a goal against us when we were defending badly. On Friday, we will have to defend well."
Bayern Munich midfielder Franck Ribery's season finished on 7 May, while defenders Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra both played in the UEFA Champions League final for Barcelona and Manchester United respectively last Saturday.
On this week's evidence at training, Blanc is relaxed: "We were starting to wonder if the players had already entered holiday mode, but the past two days I've been pleasantly surprised. Franck looks quick and is raring to go. Abidal is desperate to play, and so is Evra."
Italy wary of Estonia
Italy are in a similar position to France, sitting top of Group C with four wins from five games ahead of Estonia's visit to Modena. The Azzurri have never been beaten by Estonia, although the Baltic minnows gave the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ winners a fright last September in Tallinn by taking the lead in their group opener only to lose 2-1.
Sweden, meanwhile, head to Chisinau for a match against Moldova which could see them close the gap to runaway Group E leaders the Netherlands. Coach Erik Hamren will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the AC Milan striker recently suffered an ankle knock, meaning Johan Elmander and Ola Toivonen are likely to spearhead Sweden's attack.
Sweden have two games in hand on both the Netherlands and third-placed Hungary. Victory in Chisinau would allow Hamren's side to close the gap on the Dutch to six points ahead of their next qualifier against Finland next week.
In other matches Croatia host Georgia in Split with the chance of leapfrogging UEFA EURO 2004 champions Greece - who host Malta on Saturday - at the top of Group F.
In Group A Germany can consolidate their five-point lead over Belgium with an away victory against Austria in Vienna, while Turkey can jump up to second place if they beat Belgium in Brussels.