World Cup Qualifier – Previews

Although Group One got underway in mid-August, Wednesday night sees the first fixtures for the Czech Republic and Netherlands, who play each other in Amsterdam.

Tonight marks Dutch coach Marco van Basten’s first competitive game in charge of the team and despite some injury worries over the weekend, his only serious fitness doubt appears to be Wilfred Bouma.

The Holland team will bear little relation to the side that met the Czechs in their thrilling 3-2 defeat at Euro 2004. Just three of that team – Edwin van der Sar, Edgar Davids and Johnny Heitinga – look likely to start.

Van Basten decided to send four of his squad home at the weekend, with the new coach seemingly settled on his team.

“We almost know for every position who’s playing where,” said Van Basten.

It looks as if Pierre can Hooijdonk will start up as central striker for the Dutch as he appeared to be favourite in the last training session leading up to the game. Feyenoord pair Romeo Castelen and Dirk Kuijt look likely to join van Hooijdonk in attack – Roy Makaay may have to settle for a place on the bench.

The Czech Republic have no such luxuries in selection, being in the midst of an injury crisis. Karel Poborsky’s back injury means he will be added to a list that already includes Pavel Nedved, Tomas Galasek, Vladimir Smicer, Jaroslav Plasil and Jiri Jarosi. Only Tomas Rosicky remains from coach Karel Bruckner’s first-choice midfield.

Bruckner was less than encouraged by the remainder of his squad, who lost 1-0 to Czech club side Mlada Bolesav in a friendly on Friday: “Every friendly match shows some positives, or even a lot of positives. But this time there were only negatives.” he said.

The Dutch have won just one of their last six games against the Czechs, and both sides will be eager to make up ground on group leaders Romania, who have won their opening two games.

On Wednesday night Romania take on Andorra, with coach Anghel Iordanescu expected to make changes to the side that beat Macedonia 2-1 on Saturday. The squad has travelled to Andorra without Adrian Mutu and Florentin Petre, who are suspended and injured respectively.

Iordanescu was blunt about the quality of his latest opposition.

“In Andorra of course, that will mean changing the starting team, having in mind that the match is much easier,” he said.

In the other game in the group, Finland will be looking to follow up their 3-0 defeat of Andorra on Saturday with a win away in Armenia.

Matches between Greece and Turkey are always intense affairs, but Wednesday’s game in Group Two promises to be even more charged than usual with both teams needing a boost after disappointing performances at the weekend.

Greece’s 2-1 loss against Albania would have been regarded as a shock even without their Euro 2004 triumph and Otto Rehhagel’s side will be looking to bounce back quickly.

“Our victory in Portugal does not matter, and the game against Albania does not matter, it’s the 90 minutes on the pitch that matter,” said Rehhagel to reporters.

Turkey’s home 1-1 draw against Georgia was also way below the quality their fans have come to expect and they’ll be looking to redeem themselves against Greece.

“We got off to a bad start, but we are capable of turning this around. It will be a tough match, but we intend to win,” said Turkey captain Bulent Korkma.

Turkey will be without Hasan Sas, suspended after his red card against Georgia, and it’s likely Hakan Sukur’s thigh injury will keep him out of the starting eleven.

Greece will be without injured defender Trainos Dellas, but look set to keep faith with Nikos Dabizas despite a poor performance against Albania that saw him substituted in the first half.

Fresh from their landmark win against the Greeks, Albanian coach Hans-Peter Briegel says he’ll be happy with just a point when his team travel to Georgia.

“I had planned for us to have collected four points in the first two matches so I am happy to get one point in Tbilisi,” said Briegel after the Greece game.

Albania are likely to be without midfielder Klodian Duro who injured a knee in Saturday’s game, but midfielder Atlin Lala and striker Florian Myrtaj are expected to recover from their injuries.

The last time Briegel’s side faced Georgia, they were beaten 3-0 in a Euro 2004 qualifier.

Ukraine follow their 1-1 draw away to Denmark, with a game against Kazakhstan, who have yet to start their qualifying campaign.

In Group Three, early leaders Estonia travel to Portugal hoping to protect their 100% record. Wins against Liechstenstein and Luxembourg may hardly have prepared the Estonians for their latest game, but goalkeeper Mart Poom is optimistic.

“Like Estonia, our neighbours Latvia are also a young country but they showed what can be achieved by reaching the finals of Euro 2004 and Greece emphasised anything is possible by winning the competition despite being big outsiders,” he said of his nation’s qualification prospects.

Portugal’s away win against Latvia at the weekend will put them in good spirits for the game, and they’ll be hoping for a repeat performance from attacker Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored once and set up the second in the 2-0 victory.

Defender Nuno Valente looks certain to miss the game after incurring a knee injury in Saturday’s game, Rui Jorge looks his likely replacement.

Estonian manager Arno Pijpers will again be without key defender Andrei Stepanov.

Luxembourg coach Allan Simonsen is expected to make a number of changes after his side’s 4-0 loss to Estonia, he’ll definitely be without Dan Huss, who was sent off on Saturday.

Simonsen’s side take on Latvia, who’ll be looking for a first win after their defeat to Portugal.

Slovakia, who play Liechtenstein in Bratislava, look likely to make only one change after their encouraging 1-1 draw away to Russia. Coach Dusan Galis will lose defender Stanislav Varga who is suspended after successive yellow cards.

Meanwhile, the Russian Football Union are denying that national coach Georgy Yartsev has resigned after the team’s disappointing display against Slovakia.

Favourites to win Group Four, France, made a faltering start to their campaign by drawing 0-0 at home to Israel. Coach Raymond Domenech has warned his players not to underestimate their next opponents, the Faroe Islands.

“There is only one thing that matters here, it’s to win,” said Domenech on Tuesday.

“We’re taking this match very seriously. The easier it looks the better you have to prepare for it.”

The Faroes lost 6-0 to Switzerland on Saturday, but Domenech is refusing to listen to talk of a walkover.

“Germany snatched a win here by scoring two goals in the dying minutes,” Domenech said. “It proves that this team is a tough one to beat.”

The French coach has hinted at changes from the side that drew with Israel and it looks like his favoured 3-5-2 formation may be shelved for the time being, with the side returning to a more traditional 4-4-2.

Midfielder Benoit Pedretti is tipped to join captain Patrick Vieira in midfield, while Djibril Cisse looks likely to start up front as France try and improve their cutting edge.

The Israelis have made three late additions to their squad to play Cyprus. Injuries from the French game have taken their toll on the side with Yigal Antebi, Shimon Gershon and Avi Strul all ruled out of the next game. Midfielder Yossi Benayoun may also miss the game with a knee injury.

Ireland manager Brian Kerr has said he feels Switzerland may be as much of a threat in the group as France. Having comfortably beaten Cyprus on Saturday Kerr is looking forward to a much tougher test against the Swiss.

“The media thought that when the draw was made it would be a three horse race that France would win and ourselves and Switzerland would be fighting it out for the final spot. But Israel’s draw (with France) may be making people think differently about it,” said Kerr on the FAI’s website.

Kerr has praised the influence midfielder Roy Keane has had on his return to the squad. Having initially ruled himself out of the team for Wednesday’s game with a rib injury, he is now in contention for a starting place.

Damien Duff is also likely to start, shrugging off a calf injury received on Saturday.

The game is bound to be a tense one especially considering the last match between the two – a 2-0 victory for Switzerland – which was a fractious affair that ended Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2004 last October.

Italy go into their second game in Group Five, again without Francesco Totti. He served the last game of his suspension for spitting when he sat out the Azzurri’s 2-1 win over Norway on Saturday, but an ankle injury will keep him out of Wednesday’s game against Moldova.

Coach Marcello Lippi is ready to make sweeping changes to Saturday’s team, believing that his players, who have yet to start their league season at home, aren’t ready to play two games in quick succession.

Striker Alessandro Del Piero looks certain to return to the team at the expense of Fabrizio Miccoli, while Daniele De Rossi is expected to make way for Andrea Pirlo despite his scoring debut. Massimo Abrosini is likely to replace Gennaro Gattuso in midfield and Massimo Oddo may take over from Daniele Bonera at fullback.

Having defeated seemingly their biggest rivals, Norway, the Italians are expected to take a straightforward win from the game against Moldova, but Del Piero warned against complacency.

“Just take a look at the draw between France and Israel, or Greece losing against Albania. This shows you that in football nothing is certain. There are no weak opponents because at an international level all the teams have improved a great deal,” he said.

Moldova coach Viktor Pasulko has decided to try and stick with the team that lost 3-0 in Slovenia, but was realistic about the size of the task that would face them.

“Italy are one of the top teams in the world and we must play a very disciplined and inspired game to have any chance against them,” he said.

Contrary to earlier reports, Norway’s captain Martin Andresen has confirmed he will be playing against Belarus. As Andresen’s partner was about to give birth to their first child, it was expected the midfielder would miss the midweek clash. As it was, the baby was born on Tuesday night and Andresen has decided to take his place in the team.

Norway will want to banish the memories of their 2-1 defeat to Italy with a strong performance against Belarus in Oslo. It’s the away side’s first game in the group.

Also starting their journey towards the finals are Scotland, who take on Slovenia at Hampden Park. Scotland coach Berti Vogts is under some pressure after a poor run of results under his reign and he’s under no illusions as to the importance of the game.

“This is one of the key matches for second place,” Vogts said. “Norway, Slovenia and Scotland are all fighting for second place although sometimes on our best day we can beat Italy.”

Slovenia opened their account with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Moldova, with Nastja Ceh in inspirational form in midfield and a rampant Milenko Acimovic striking a hat-trick. They are expected to be unchanged from that game.

Scotland will stick to much the same team that drew 1-1 in last Friday’s prematurely abandoned international against Spain. One doubt is defender Steven Pressley who is suffering from a back injury.

In Group Six England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has insisted that he is under no additional pressure, despite the criticism he received after their 2-2 draw in Austria.

“I don’t agree that that we have to panic after one game and one draw away from home. We should have won against Austria and we made some mistakes that cost us the game but that is football sometimes,” said Eriksson.

The Swede has implied that wholesale changes are unnecessary, with goalkeeper David James and captain David Beckham thought to be likely to keep their places.

One change he seems certain to make is the removal of Wayne Bridge, his midfield berth to be taken by Chelsea team-mate Joe Cole.

Meanwhile Polish coach Pawel Janas has been complaining about not having enough time to coach his players. He says he hasn’t been able to prepare any specific tactics for England, and is having to rely on the confidence in the squad after their 3-0 win against Northern Ireland.

“Unfortunately I have no influence in this. My XI which will play in Chorzow will be made up mostly from foreign-based players. We haven’t got much time for `special’ training. We can only train tactics, play arrangement and set-pieces,” said Janas.

Janas is likely to name a side with just one enforced change – Piotr Wlodarczyk will miss the game after being sent off against Northern Ireland.

Wales go into their home game with Northern Ireland disappointed with their opening display in the group. Their 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan in Baku was less than coach Mark Hughes expected. Three points against the Irish would appear to be a necessity if Wales are to have any chance of progressing through to the World Cup finals.

Striker Craig Bellamy has been praising the team set-up, but urged Welsh fans to be realistic.

“The Irish were unlucky to lose by 3-0 to Poland, they are a better team than that. But if we play to the level we can do, we will win,” he said.

“But let’s get one thing straight, we are no France! We are not the elite of European football, but a decent side at this level and if we do the things we do well against the Irish then we have a good chance of winning.”

Midfielder Andy Johnson has withdrawn from the squad due to a family bereavement, while goalkeeper Darren Ward has returned after a back injury stopped him travelling to Azerbaijan.

In the other game in the group, Austria, buoyed by their comeback against England, will play Azerbaijan in Vienna.

Spain play Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group Seven – it’s the first qualification game for both sides.

Spanish coach Luis Aragones says he’s expecting a huge improvement from his team after two lacklustre friendlies, particularly the game against Scotland last Friday.

“It wasn’t a great game against Scotland but we’ll see something different against Bosnia, with the important thing being to get the points,” he said.

Raul is expected to return to the starting line-up after coming off the bench to score the equaliser against the Scots. Fernando Morientes is also tipped for a place at the expense of Fernando Torres up front.

Bosnian coach Blaz Slizkovic is surprisingly upbeat about the game saying a bad result was ‘out of the question’, and that it was the perfect time to play Spain because they hadn’t settled under new coach Aragones.

Slizkovic will be missing midfielder Ivica Grlic and defender Zlatan Bajramovic, but the Bosnians are otherwise injury free.

Lithuania follow their promising draw in Belgium with a game at home to San Marino – who lost 3-0 to Serbia on Saturday.

Group Eight proceeds with a match in Gothenburg between the teams expected to slug it out for the automatic qualification place, Croatia and Sweden.

Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjcar plans to name an unchanged team after Saturday’s 3-0 against Hungary, the line-up will include his 20-year-old son Niko.

Sweden are also likely to keep Saturday’s team, having swept away Malta 7-0 in Valetta, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring four including a hat-trick in the first quarter-hour.

Hungary and Iceland play each other in Budapest, with both hoping to get back on track after a defeat.

Iceland’s 3-1 home defeat to Bulgaria and Hungary’s 3-0 loss in Croatia has left both sides with a mountain to climb if they are to put themselves in contention for the finals.

Friendly international
Elsewhere, Germany, who qualify automatically as hosts of World Cup 2006, take on Brazil in a friendly at the newly renovated Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

The game, a repeat of the 2002 final will be German coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s first home fixture in charge of the side.

“A coach couldn’t wish for a better opportunity,” said Klinsmann at a pre-match press conference.

“I’m absolutely convinced there will be an explosive atmosphere.”

It’s bound to be a particularly poignant game for German striker Kevin Kuranyi, who was born in Brazil and lived there until the age of 13.

Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira sees the game as a way of comparing his side’s progress against another front-runner for the 2006 crown.

“This game is Germany’s starting block for the 2006 World Cup and they would gain extra confidence and a boost for the finals with a win over us,” he said.

“It’s important we use the opportunity to play against a side who will be challenging for the World Cup.”

Germany come into the game on the back of a 3-1 friendly win against Austria, the Brazilians lead the South American qualification table after a similar win against Bolivia