France, England and Italy will aim to continue rebuilding tarnished reputations as the qualifiers for next year’s European Championship resume across the continent this weekend after a winter break.
France travel to Luxembourg on Friday in a Group D clash which should be a formality but is attracting close scrutiny than normal because of the return of the two ‘enfants terribles’ Patrice Evra and Frank Ribery who have completed bans.
John Terry also makes a return of sorts for England in Wales on Saturday after the Chelsea defender was reinstated as captain after being stripped of the honour last year by coach Fabio Capello after revelations about an extra-marital affair.
Terry’s rallying cry will be needed by England as they cross the River Severn for an important Group G clash against a Welsh side that will be fired-up by a capacity crowd in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Italy, who like France and England under-achieved at the World Cup finals, have made an encouraging start to lead Group C but an away trip to Slovenia on Friday will test the resolve of Cesare Prandelli’s side.
European and world champions Spain host the Czech Republic in Granada in Group I on Friday, having won all three of their previous matches. Striker David Villa will have the chance to become the leading goalscorer for Spain, needing just one more to move ahead of Raul with whom he shares the record with 44.
Fernando Torres, who is fifth on the list with 26, will hope that pulling on the national shirt will help him rediscover his goal touch after a difficult start at new club Chelsea where he has failed to find the net in his first seven appearances.
Germany also own a 100 percent record in Group A ahead of Saturday’s home tie against Kazakhstan in Kaiserslautern, as do World Cup runners-up Netherlands as they prepare for Friday’s away match against Group E rivals Hungary.
France coach Laurent Blanc declined to recall Evra for last month’s friendly against Brazil despite him having served his five-match ban, wary of a public backlash after Evra’s World Cup bust-up when he refused to train in support of striker Nicolas Anelka who had insulted Blanc’s predecessor Raymond Domenech.
Ribery, another player at the centre of the World Cup storm, was injured when his three-match ban ended but now he is fit Blanc appears to have adopted a “forgive and forget” philosophy, although he has warned both of their conduct.
“They had a certain status in the France team because of their experience,” Blanc said. “They need humility to return to the group with the same status as everyone else.”
After a shock defeat by Belarus in their opening Group D fixture France have looked impressive without Evra and Ribery, winning their next three matches to lead the group and three points against bottom team Luxembourg would leave them in a comfortable position.
The build-up to England’s clash with Wales has been centred around the endless debate over the captaincy after Capello announced that Terry was taking back the role on a full-time basis from the injured Rio Ferdinand.
Terry admitted he “was not everyone’s cup of tea” this week although by general consensus he is seen as the natural leader of the team.
With England trailing surprise pace-setters Montenegro by three points having played a game less, the Terry debate has tended to overshadow what looks a dangerous fixture even if 116th ranked Wales are bottom of the table and have managed just 14 wins against their more illustrious rivals in 99 meetings.
Wales, for all their shortcomings, have in Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale and much-travelled striker Craig Bellamy some firepower that could cause Capello’s team problems.
“They’re a dangerous team, they’ve got good players and it will be a great atmosphere and that will give them a lift, an extra 10 percent,” Manchester City midfielder James Milner, who is likely to start, told the FA’s website.
While atmosphere is guaranteed in Cardiff, but that will not be the case at all this weekend’s matches.
Serbia face Northern Ireland behind closed doors in Belgrade after Serb fans rioted in a Group C match against Italy.