The European dress rehearsal
Six weeks have elapsed since Spain's UEFA EURO 2008 conquest, and yesterday Kazakhstan and Andorra kicked off Europe's qualifying competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. A number of other sides, meantime, finalised preparations for their campaigns, which begin in little over two weeks, on a busy evening of friendlies.
Although several star names were conspicuous by their absence, among them Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Michael Ballack and Luca Toni, there was still plenty of interest, particularly with a host of new coaches making their debuts. Marcello Lippi (Italy), Vicente del Bosque (Spain), Bert van Marwijk (Netherlands), Petr Roda (Czech Republic), Ottmar Hitzfeld (Switzerland) and Karel Bruckner (Austria) began their respective tenures with varying degrees of success, and with the exception of Italy, the big guns confirmed their status.
Matches of the day
Despite changing coaches over the summer, Spain began their reign as European champions in the same impressive style that swept them to victory in Austria and Switzerland. Two goals from Xabi Alonso helped La Furia Roja to a 3-0 defeat of Denmark, a result that should set them up nicely for their opening qualifier against Bosnia-Herzegovina, who went down 2-1 to Bulgaria, with Dimitar Berbatov scoring a brace of his own.
A penalty from Bastian Schweinsteiger and a goal from 19-year-old Marco Marin helped Germany to a 2-0 win over Belgium. In yet another stuttering performance, EURO 2008 absentees England needed a last-gasp goal from Joe Cole to secure a 2-2 draw at home to Czech Republic. Meanwhile, the Netherlands travelled to Russia in Bert van Marwijk's first game as Marco van Basten's successor, and the Dutch played out a 1-1 draw with the side that ousted them from the recent European finals.
If their 3-2 reverse of Sweden is anything to go by, France seem to have learnt the lessons of their disastrous summer. Sidney Govou scored twice as a rejuvenated line-up featuring only six players based outside France bristled with attacking intent. The only negative note for Les Bleus was a faltering performance at the back, where the absence of the recently-retired Lilian Thuram was keenly felt.
Outside Europe, there were comfortable 3-1 wins for Uruguay over Japan and for Roger Lemerre's Morocco over Benin.
Surprises of the day
Italy did things the hard way in Marcello Lippi's first game back in charge of the Squadra Azzurra, coming back from 2-0 down after 40 minutes against a strong-running Austria team. Karel Bruckner's side paid for their continuing defensive frailties, however, and a fortunate finish from Alberto Gilardino and a Ramazan Ozcan own-goal allowed the Italians to escape with a draw. Lippi will not be too concerned at Italy's below-par showing. He began his first stint with a 2-0 defeat by Iceland in 2004 before steering the Italians to glory at Germany 2006.
Belarus can be very pleased at holding Argentina to a goalless draw in Minsk. But with Lionel Messi, Juan Riquelme and Javier Mascherano all on duty at the Olympic Games in Beijing, the Albiceleste did at least have a convincing excuse for their disappointing performance.
Goal of the day
Henrik Larsson (Sweden-France).
Since returning home in March 2007 to play for Helsingborg, Swedish veteran Henrik Larsson has lost none of his goalscoring instincts. With just six minutes on the clock against France, Larsson got on the end of Kim Kallstrom's curling cross and sent an exquisite scissor-kick flying into the bottom corner of the net.
Player of the day
Russia's Igor Akinfeev
The superlative form of the CSKA Moscow keeper was the main reason why the Netherlands were unable to exact revenge for their quarter-final exit at the hands of Russia in June. The latest in a long line of great Russian keepers, Akinfeev pulled off several decisive saves and held firm when the Dutch pressed in the closing stages.
The numbers game
93 - Goalscorers enjoyed a field day on Wednesday, racking up a total of 93 goals in 33 matches, an average of 2.78 per game. Hungary and Montenegro drew 3-3 in the evening's most prolific encounter, while the Belarus-Argentina and Scotland-Northern Ireland matches failed to yield a single goal.
What they said
"I felt at ease. The players gave me their full cooperation and that allowed me to try a few things out. We need to be consistent though, and we could easily have gone behind in the first half," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.
"We made a slow start and found ourselves trailing by two goals. I put that down to the fact our league hasn't started yet and the players are a little out of condition. Things went better as soon as we started speeding things up and I'm satisfied with the result," Italy coach Marcello Lippi.
"When you concede twice and your opponents have lots of other chances to score it means there are a few things you need to sort out. That said I'd rather win 3-2 than 1-0. I also wanted to treat this game like a real match, something more than a friendly. The aim was to push ourselves right to the end," France coach Raymond Domenech.