Qualifying for the 2012 European Championship begins in earnest Friday when defending champion Spain and three-time winner Germany lead the continent’s traditional powers into action.
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Less than eight weeks after adding its first World Cup to the European title it won two years ago, top-ranked Spain is at lowly Liechtenstein in one of 22 qualifiers.
But while Spain, Germany and the Netherlands are seeking to maintain the high standards they set at the World Cup, other big sides continue their rebuilding programs while targeting a place at the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
France has what should be a straightforward first competitive match under coach Laurent Blanc when is hosts Belarus, England hosts Bulgaria and Italy is at Estonia.
Although the match should be straightforward for a Spain team that has become only the third to hold the world and European titles at the same time, Carles Puyol’s absence in central defense because of a left leg injury could be a problem.
Spain was rusty in last month’s 1-1 friendly draw against Mexico and most of its players have played only one round of league matches since, so could be out of practice.
Coach Vicente Del Bosque recalled Osasuna defender Ignacio Monreal to take Puyol’s place in the squad, but either Sergio Ramos or Carlos Marchena are likely to fill in for the Barcelona defender.
Monreal trained with the rest of the team on Wednesday, while striker Fernando Torres was limited to gym work.
But Spain’s players insist they are going into Friday’s game with the same attitude that took it to July’s World Cup final win over the Netherlands.
"The first game is important. We’re playing for three points and we want to start qualifying well," midfielder Sergio Busquets said Wednesday. "Sure, (a win) is more attainable against this rival but you can’t be overconfident.
"You have to play as if you were going up one of the best teams. We have to start well."
Busquets said the 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in its opening World Cup match in South Africa was a wakeup call.
"We know it won’t be easy and that what we have already achieved should be put aside," Busquets said. "After the first game at the World Cup we were the worst and then we went on to win and we’re the best.
"We’re starting a new stage and you have to work at it like any other national team."
Italy is also starting a new chapter after the humiliation of finishing last in a World Cup group featuring New Zealand.
With Amauri and Mario Balotelli both injured, Cesare Prandelli is hoping Antonio Cassano recovers from a back problem in time for his competitive debut as Italy coach.
Cassano started last month’s 1-0 friendly loss to Ivory Coast and, after missing the start of training with the Azzurri this week, Cassano was back in the lineup during a training match Wednesday.
Cassano’s Sampdoria teammate Giampaolo Pazzini and Fabio Quagliarella completed a three-man attack, while Alberto Gilardino is also in the squad.
"It’s not going to be a walk in the park against Estonia," Prandelli said. "They’re a decent squad and we’ve got to be attentive."
Andrea Pirlo appears fully healthy again after a left calf injury.
"Having Pirlo back is key. He changes the way we play," Prandelli said.
Bologna’s 24-year-old goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano could get his first start with Gianluigi Buffon still recovering from back surgery.
Estonia leads Group C after a 2-1 win over Faeroe Islands last month, the only qualifier to be played so far. Israel plays Malta in Group E on Thursday before Friday’s 22 games.
Blanc is trying to build a solid defense but Patrice Evra’s five-game suspension for being a perceived ringleader in the World Cup training ground boycott is hindering the new coach.
"A team needs a spinal cord," Blanc said. "To have a good defense, you need a pair of center-halves who compliment each other, who are efficient and are equally good defensively or bringing the ball out from the back.
"It’s not easy."
Blanc still has not decided who his new captain will be, but Florent Malouda is a strong contender.
"If between now and Friday there is one player who stands out because of his personality, his charisma and who is irreproachable in terms of his mentality, he will be captain," Blanc said. "At the moment, he is good in every sense of the word.
"He’s been a mainstay of the Chelsea team for two or three seasons. He’s a logical candidate."
Blanc called up Blaise Matuidi from Saint-Etienne as midfield cover for Lille’s Yohan Cabaye, with Real Madrid’s Lassana Diarra pulling out.
Malouda is certain to start, but Loic Remy, newcomer Kevin Gameiro and Guillaume Hoarau are all in contention for a place up front.
Injuries and a hostile press mean England’s Group G opener against Bulgaria at Wembley could be tricky.
Coach Fabio Capello is under pressure after the team slumped out of the World Cup with a 4-1 defeat against Germany and will be without John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard because of injury.
Germany is at Belgium, Croatia is at Latvia, Greece hosts Georgia and the Netherlands is at San Marino.