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EURO hopefuls on their marks

Spain will launch the defence of their European title with a visit to Liechtenstein as UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying begins in earnest with 23 matches across the continent.

EURO hopefuls on their marks
EURO hopefuls on their marks ©uefa.com 1998-2012. All rights reserved.

Seven weeks and five days after capturing the FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg, Vicente del Bosque's all-conquering Spain side return to competitive action in rather more modest surroundings with a visit to Liechtenstein's Rheinpark Stadion in Vaduz – a venue whose 6,127 capacity could fit 14 times over into Soccer City.

For Spain, it is the start of their defence of the European title they won in Vienna two years ago. With the world crown now theirs too, Spain's aim is to become the first team to retain the Henri Delaunay Cup – something West Germany came closest to doing in 1976 when, after European and world triumphs, they lost out on a third successive tournament victory by the finest of margins in a penalty shoot-out defeat by Czechoslovakia.

Spain will be confident of a positive opening to their Group I programme, having won all four previous meetings with Liechtenstein without conceding a goal. The same applies for the Netherlands, their vanquished final rivals in Soccer City on 11 July, who start their Group E campaign away to San Marino – opponents, as with Spain and Liechtenstein, whom they have beaten four times without shipping a single goal to date.

Runners-up to Spain at UEFA EURO 2008, Germany will attempt to go one better in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, buoyed by their promising displays in South Africa and the influx of young talent that lifted last year's UEFA European Under-21 Championship title. Joachim Löw's charges launch their Group A campaign with a trip to a Belgium side for whom this is the first serious test since coach Georges Leekens embarked on his second spell at the helm. In the same section, Guus Hiddink makes his competitive bow with Turkey in Kazakhstan while his former team Russia begin life under another Dutchman, Dick Advocaat, by travelling to Andorra in Group B.

Group C is the one pool already under way and it almost opened with an upset, Estonia scoring two injury-time goals in Tallinn on 11 August to beat Faroe Islands 2-1. Now it is Estonia's turn to assume the underdogs' role when Italy visit in what is the Azzurri's first competitive run-out under Cesare Prandelli – the new coach will want an improvement on his debut defeat by Ivory Coast. Like Italy, France are also seeking to put World Cup disappointment behind them under a new coach. Laurent Blanc selected an entirely new squad for the friendly loss in Norway but will welcome back some familiar faces for Les Bleus' Group D curtain-raiser against Belarus in Paris.

The first of the week's 23 ties was played on Thursday night when Israel beat Malta 3-1 in Group F. Twenty-four on later, 2004 champions Greece take their first steps under Otto Rehhagel's replacement, Fernando Santos, with a home fixture against a Georgia team now under the tutelage of Temuri Ketsbaia. Among the fixtures in Groups G and H, England will look to lift the post-World Cup blues with a home victory over Bulgaria while Portugal will target a winning start when Cyprus come to Guimaraes.