England play their first match, since their disappointing exit to Portugal at Euro 2004, against Ukraine at St James’ Park, Newcastle, tonight.
England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, knows he is under pressure but the Swede has chosen as near an unchanged side as injuries will allow. He has reiterated his faith in the players who reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2004 in tonight’s friendly.
The new face is Alan Smith, who plays due to Wayne Rooney’s injury and Emile Heskey’s tweaked hamstring.
Otherwise, the starting XI is from the squad is the same one that raised pre-Euro 2004 expectations, but was subsequently regarded as a failure.
Paul Scholes’ retirement from international football at the age of 29-years-old has allowed Nicky Butt to reclaim a position in midfield. This probably means that Erikkson will deploy his diamond formation with Steven Gerrard moving out to the troublesome left side of midfield.
Many England fans hoped that Erikkson’s diamond would remain in the cupboard with Glen Hoddle’s sweeper and Terry Venables’ christmas tree formations. But Eriksson knows that Butt is in promising form since his move to Newcastle from Manchester United and confirmed that he will pick players on form and not whether he likes them as people.
He was referring to suggestions that he is too loyal to captain David Beckham, who was poor in Portugal. Erikkson insisted if he found a better player than the Real Madrid galactico, then he would use him.
St James’ Park is expected to be half-empty tonight. Disappointing ticket sales has forced Erikkson to promise that exciting talents Jermaine Defoe and Shaun Wright-Phillips, and Newcastle duo, Kieron Dyer and Jermaine Jenas, will be utilised from the bench in a bid to lure the Toon Army.
How the Toon Army reacts to Dyer after his much-publicised confrontation with Bobby Robson remains to be seen.
Ukraine have a new coach, the 1975 European Footballer of the Year, Oleg Blokhin. His team is based on the old and new faces from his former club, Dynamo Kiev.
Most recognisable is Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko who has the proven skill to terrorise any defence in the world.
But despite his threat, England should have enough all-round strength to win.
Erikkson knows that the nation’s aura about him has gone. Only a solid World Cup qualifying campaign starting against Austria in Vienna next month and the World Cup itself in Germany 2006 will restore the public’s faith in him.
Scotland play Hungary tonight in a friendly at Hampden Park where two old adversaries are reunited.
Tartan Army coach, Berti Vogts and Hungary coach, Lothar Matthaus, clashed during Euro ’96. Vogts was in charge of the German side and left Matthaus fuming when he named Jurgen Klinsmann captain of that team.
The Scotland coach remembers: “He’s not an easy person and we had lots of fights, but he’s a good man, and a strong one.”
Wolves’ midfielder, Colin Cameron, pulled out of the Scotland squad last night with a thigh injury adding to the Vogts’ worries. Barry Ferguson will return to the side as captain and will partner Darren Fletcher in midfield. Nigel Quashie will also start and James McFadden will lead the front-line with Kenny Miller.
In goal, 19-year-old David Marshall makes his international debut after some impressive performances for Celtic.
Hungary will be no pushover. They beat Germany 2-0 in a pre-Euro 2004 match and will probably start with West Bromwich Albion’s Zoltan Gera and Sandor Torghelle as well as Crystal Palace’s Gabor Kiraly.
Wales travel to Latvia for tonight’s friendly in Riga and Welsh coach, Mark Hughes, is delighted to welcome back John Hartson and Craig Bellamy.
The pair have played together only four times in 14 internationals since their masterful display destroyed Italy in Cardiff two years ago.
In this, their final friendly before they begin their World Cup qualifying campaign, Wales will field a team, with the exception of injured Danny Gabbidon, that will start away to Azerbaijan in Baku next month for the opening tie.
Ryan Giggs is suspended for the opening two qualifying matches and is rested, meaning Carl Robinson of Sunderland starts in midfield.
And Hughes may use Latvia as inspiration of how small footballing nations can rise to prominence in his team talk tonight.
The Latvian minnows surprised everyone when they eliminated Turkey in the Euro 2004 play-offs. Their danger man is Maris Verpakovskis who is likely to start with Southampton’s Marian Parhars on the bench.
Republic of Ireland host Bulgaria in Dublin tonight and Ireland coach, Brian Kerr, must plan this friendly carefully and use the new six-substitution ruling wisely.
Three Manchester United players in the starting XI will almost certainly not play the full 90 minutes bearing in mind the club’s injury crisis and vital Champions League qualifying tie against Dinamo Bucharest next week.
This means that Roy Keane, John O’ Shea and Liam Miller will all be taken off at some stage. Robbie Keane, Matt Holland and Andy O’ Brien all miss the match due to injury but Kerr hopes they will be available when Ireland open their World Cup qualifying campaign against Cyprus.
Certain to start is Chelsea’s Damien Duff who has not played for his country since March’s draw against the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria have appointed Hristo Stoichkov as their new coach as they seek to build a new era. Forty-year-old Stoichkov is a Bulgarian legend who captained the national team to the World Cup semi finals in 1994, though his appointment as coach was a surprise considering his lack of coaching credentials.
Stiliyan Petrov of Celtic and Bayern Leverkeusen’s Dimitar Berbatov are joint captains and around them, there is a strong, technically sound team.
Charlton’s Radostin Kishishev returns from his self-imposed exile and replaces injured Martin Petrov at right back.
The Bulgarian players will all try to impress their new boss as he tries to return the national team to the glory of yesteryears.
Northern Ireland have a tough friendly as they travel to Zurich to play Switzerland tonight.
Manager Lawrie Sanchez knows that qualification for the World Cup would be miraculous in a group that includes England, Wales, Poland and Austria.
He admitted: “Our best hope is to win a tight battle for second place.”
Sanchez has improved the fortunes of Northern Ireland as they remain unbeaten in five of his six matches in charge. But he is without several key players and lost Michael Hughes who has not recovered from a groin strain.
Sanchez is expected to try Manchester United’s Roy Carroll over Birmingham City’s Maik Taylor in goal in an attempt to boost the shot stopper’s confidence.
He said: “Roy has stuff to prove both internationally and internally.”
Switzerland will hope to improve on their disappointing showing at Euro 2004 in front of their own fans in Zurich. They only managed one point in the group stage, a tedious 0-0 draw with Croatia.
New Germany coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, takes charge of his first match against Austria in a friendly in Vienna tonight.
Klinsmann took the role last month after his predecessor, Rudi Voller, quit following a disappointing Euro 2004 campaign that saw the Germans bowing out at the first hurdle.
Klinsmann knows that he must rebuild a team capable of challenging for the next World Cup, which Germany hosts in 2006.
Some last minute injuries to Bayern Leverkeusen’s Jens Nowotny and Arne Friedrich of Hertha Berlin have made the coach give a debut to Chelsea’s Robert Huth and a recall for Thomas Linke of Bayern Munich.
Frank Fahrenhorst from Bundesliga Champions Werder Bremen earns his first international squad call and team mate Tim Borowski returns after a two year absence.
Austria and Germany have played each other 33 times. The Germans have won 18 of them with six ending in a draw.
They last met in May 2002 in Leverkeusen where Germany won 6-2.
The pick of tonight’s friendlies sees a repeat of the Euro 2004 quarter final between Sweden and Holland in Solna.
New Holland coach, Marco van Basten, has promised an expectant nation that he wants to play attractive football. Former coach Dick Advocaat was heavily criticised by the Dutch media for playing defensive football with a squad blessed with attacking options.
He gives debut calls to five players who are strikers Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Dave van den Bergh (FC Ultrecht) and Romeo Castelen (Feynoord), defender Jan Kromkamp (AZ) and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg (Ajax).
Danny Landzaat of AZ is recalled to the squad after a 2-year absence, as is Nigel de Jong.
Injuries have claimed Clarence Seedorf and Philippe Cocu whilst Patrick Kliuvert, Sander Westerveld, Edwin Van der Meyde and Boujwin Zenden have been dropped.
Sweden will be out to avenge their defeat against Holland in Euro 2004 in front of their own fans. The team, ranked 20th in the FIFA tables, were knocked out on penalties after a stale 120 minutes of football failed to produce a goal.
Swedish striker Zlaten Ibrahimovic will want to score against the country where he plays his club football for Ajax.
Italy also have a new coach as they travel to Reykjavik tonight for their friendly with Iceland.
Marcello Lippi has urged the Italian public to forget the past two years and get behind the Azure.
He said: “We want Italians to cheer the national team again. We want all Italians to support us and we want to reach our objective.
“We want to advance to the World Cup and play to win because we are lesser to no one in the world.”
Italy begin their World Cup qualifying rounds with a home game against Norway on September 4, 2004 in Palmero.
Iceland are expected to start with a full strength team that includes Chelsea’s Eidur Gudjonsson.
Meanwhile, new France coach, Raymond Domenech, has recalled Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse to the French squad for the visit of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Rennes tonight.
Cisse missed Euro 2004 following a sending-off in an Under-21 European Championship defeat to Portugal last November.
Domenech fields a young, inexperienced side tonight following the retirement and injury of certain players. He is without newly appointed captain, Patrick Vieira who is still nursing a knee injury and has lost Zinedine Zidane, Lillian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Bixante Lizarazu to retirement.
One player who will definitely play is stand-in captain and goalkeeper Fabian Barthez. Reports in France suggested he was considering his international future after all the changes in the squad. But Domenech has convinced him to stay by giving him the captain’s armband tonight.
Defensive duo Sebastian Squillaci and Patrice Evra of Monaco will make their first starts, alongside fellow debutants Rio Mavuba of Bordeaux and Lyon’s Eric Abidal. Bernard Mendy, Peguy Luyindula and Jerome Rothen also start in a team clearly lacking international experience.
Spain host South Americans Venezuela in a friendly in Las Palmas tonight.
Under the spotlight tonight will be Spain’s new coach, Louis Aragones who replaced Inaki Saez who was sacked after Spain failed to qualify for the knockout stages at Euro 2004. Arsenal’s Jose Antonio Reyes has earned a recall after his impressive start to the season with the Premiership champions.
The new coach has omitted eight players employed in the Euro 2004 squad. Real Madrid full back, Michel Salgado returns after missing the tournament with injury and impending Liverpool recruit Xabi Alonso is in the squad along with Real Madrid striker Fernando Morientes.
Czech Republic will get their chance to avenge their defeat to Greece tonight in a repeat of the Euro 2004 semi final. The Greeks led by coach Otto Rehhagel will want to prove that their victory in Euro 2004 was no one off with a win in Prague tonight.
Czech Republic are without star midfielder Pavel Nedved who is considering his retirement from international football.
Denmark travel to Poland, who are in England’s qualifying group, to play a friendly in Warsaw tonight.
Charlton’s Thomas Helveg captains the Danes for the first time since his appointment to the post last month.
However, some teams begin their World Cup qualifying matches today, all of which are crucial.
In European Group 1, Macedonia must make home advantage count when they face Armenia in Skopje.
Also in Group 1, Romania play Finland in Bucherest
In Group 3, Liechtenstein play Estonia and Vaduz whilst Slovakia play Luxembourg in Bratislava.
CONCACAF nations are also playing World Cup qualifying matches tonight.
In South America, Costa Rica have home advantage when they play Honduras in Alajuela and El Salvador play Panama in San Salvador.
St Vincent and the Grenadines play neighbours Trinidad and Tobago in an all West Indies affair whilst Jamaica hope to derail the bandwagon when they play the USA in Kingston.
USA’s North American rivals Canada play Guatemala in Vancouver.
Elsewhere in the friendly matches tonight, Croatia play Israel in Zagreb.
Norway does battle with Belgium in Oslo.
Argentina makes the long trip to Shizuoka where they will face Asia Cup semi finalists Japan.
Slovenia play Serbia and Montenegro in an all Eastern European affair in Ljubljana.
Moldova play Georgia in Tiraspol whilst the Faroe Islands do battle with fellow European minnows Malta.
Russia are clear favourites when they take on Lithuania in Moscow and Cyprus play Albania in Nicosia.
Turkey will want to make an impression to their home fans in Denizli after their failure to qualify for Euro 2004 when they play Belarus.
South Africa travel to Tunisia without Manchester United star Quinton Fortune who has a thigh injury for their match in Tunis.
Morocco play Benin in Casablanca whilst Jordan sweat it out against Azerbaijan in the heat of Amman.
Conditions will be cooler in Avignon, France where Senegal are playing the Ivory Coast.
Zambia play Congo DR in the battle of middle Africa in Lusaka. Home advantage could count in this match for Zambia.