The road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup opens for Europe's teams on Friday, with many sides preparing for double-headers and defending champions Spain beginning their defence in Georgia.
Vicente del Bosque's men followed up their 2010 World Cup triumph by claiming UEFA EURO 2012 this summer to win an unprecedented third consecutive major tournament. Now intent on clinching their fourth, they will get the ball rolling in Group I in Tbilisi on Tuesday 11 September – after tackling Saudi Arabia in a friendly in Pontevedra four days earlier.
Del Bosque has recalled David Villa to his squad after the FC Barcelona striker – and the Roja's all-time leading scorer – was unable to travel to Poland and Ukraine during his recovery from a broken leg. "It is unusual that Villa is coming," explained the coach. "He has hardly played, but we thought it would give him a lift. All the information we have is that he is well." Centre-back Carles Puyol misses out with a fractured cheekbone, however.
In the same section, Didier Deschamps will get his first taste of competitive action as France coach away against Finland on Friday, before Les Bleus host UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying opponents Belarus the following Tuesday. Having left his post at Olympique de Marseille in the summer, Deschamps wants his era in charge to be defined by collective effort. "You can never have too much talent, but that is just the basis of it all," he said. "You have to put that talent to use in the team's interest."
UEFA EURO 2012 runners-up Italy have been drawn in Group B, meanwhile, and they get started in Bulgaria on Friday, before hosting Malta four days layer. Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli has called up uncapped SSC Napoli midfielder Lorenzo Insigne for those games, while AC Milan summer signing Giampaolo Pazzini has been brought back into the fold.
Friday's list of qualifiers also features an intriguing contest between Group D rivals the Netherlands and Turkey in Amsterdam, with Oranje coach Louis van Gaal desperate for a win after commencing his second spell in charge with a 4-2 friendly loss to Belgium. Turkey, eager to make up for missing out on UEFA EURO 2012, then host Estonia the following Tuesday. As for Germany, they kick off against the Faroe Islands and follow up away against Austria, having twice defeated their neighbours in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying.
Two matches are scheduled for Saturday, including Denmark's home meeting with the Czech Republic in Group B and a Scotland test for Serbia in Group A. Scotland's traditional rivals England get under way in Montenegro on Friday, finally, before they are reunited with UEFA EURO 2012 group stage opponents Ukraine on Tuesday. Roy Hodgson's men won that game 1-0, but they will be deprived of the goalscorer in Donetsk, Wayne Rooney, due to injury. For their part, the visitors must continue adapting to life without retired talisman Andriy Shevchenko.
Overall, 13 spots are up for grabs for UEFA's member nations for the 32-team final tournament in Brazil, with eight qualifying groups of six teams and one of five. The nine group winners qualify directly for the finals and the eight runners-up with the best record against the teams finishing first, third, fourth and fifth in their section go into the play-offs.
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