Road to 2014 World Cup starts for European teams
LONDON (AP) -- The road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil begins for European teams on Friday, with the top lineups expected to ease into their group campaigns after being handed some benign opening qualifying matches.
France will be eager for a fast start in Group I after being pooled with world champion Spain, which has the night off from qualifying and instead faces Saudi Arabia in an exhibition in Galicia.
The French, under new coach in Didier Deschamps, will look to avoid the kind of early slipup that marred the start to their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, when they lost 1-0 at home to Belarus.
The Belarusians are in the same World Cup qualifying group, with the teams meeting in Paris on Tuesday. First up for Les Bleus is a trip to 96th-ranked Finland on Friday.
"We'll have to be at 200 percent during both games against Spain if we want to beat them,'' France midfielder Yohan Cabaye said. "But we have two games to win against Finland and Belarus first to put ourselves in a good position before playing Spain.
"We have to fight with the idea of getting first place in the group.''
Germany is at home to the lowly Faeroe Islands in Group C and England takes on 141st-ranked Moldova in Group H with coach Roy Hodgson acknowledging that "for us, they are going to be pretty much unknown.''
With Euro 2012 finalist Italy visiting Bulgaria in Group B, the biggest test for a heavyweight European side could come in Amsterdam where the Netherlands will look to end a four-match losing run when they host Turkey in Group D.
Following the departure of Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch are under the command of Louis van Gaal and one of his first tasks is to decide between Robin van Persie or Klaas Jan Huntelaar to lead his forward line in World Cup qualifying.
Huntelaar started ahead of his fellow striker in the Netherlands' most recent match - a 4-2 loss to Belgium in an exhibition last month - but Van Persie looks in fine form after scoring four goals in his last two games for new club Manchester United.
"I'm just available,'' Van Persie said. "It does not matter what I think - those are questions for the coach. I am available for any position.''
Turkey failed to qualify for Euro 2012 but is ranked 35th. It has the players to trouble the Dutch, who go on to meet Hungary on Tuesday.
Qualifying continues for teams in Oceania, Asia, CONCACAF and South America. In total, 76 matches will be played around the world from Friday to Tuesday.
In the European zone, only one team goes through automatically for the 2014 finals from the nine groups, so the head-to-heads between Spain and France in October and March will be key.
The Spanish have won their last three meetings and defended their European title in Poland and Ukraine this summer to claim their third major title in a row.
Deschamps, who replaced Laurent Blanc in charge of France, has eyes only on top spot in its five-team group and won't be satisfied by reaching Brazil through the playoffs open to second-place finishers.
"We aren't going to start off by saying we are going to finish second - it doesn't serve anybody any good to speak about Spain at the moment,'' Deschamps said. "They are the big favorites, but our target is to finish in front of them.''
France is coming off a 0-0 home draw against Uruguay in an exhibition last month but should have no problems finding its form against Finland, which has never qualified for the finals of a major tournament.
Germany will play the Faeroes, Europe's third lowest-ranked team, above only Andorra and San Marino. A tougher test will come four days later when the Germans visit neighbor Austria. Sweden and Ireland are also in the group.
England will be without arguably its only two world-class players - Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole - when it travels to Moldova, which Hodgson rates despite its 0-0 draw against Albania in a recent exhibition.
"There will be a lot of thought that Moldova are not very special, not very strong, but we certainly don't go into the game with that thought at all,'' said Hodgson, who begins his first qualifying campaign in charge of England.
"Certainly, my message to the players is, `I don't care if they are called Moldova. As far as I'm concerned, they could be called Brazil.'''
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