Soccer

Europe's superpowers ease back into World Cup qualifying

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Associated Press
3/20/2013 4:03:07 PM
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LONDON -- The European powers resume qualifying for the 2014 World Cup on Friday with some of the easiest matches they'll play on the road to Brazil.

World champion Spain hosts Finland, Group I's bottom team, hoping to avoid picking up any suspensions or injuries before taking on France next week. France is behind Spain only on goal difference and welcomes Georgia to Paris.

"It's a turning point, undoubtedly," France striker Olivier Giroud said. "If we're still ahead of Spain after these two matches, we will have cause for hope."

The road to Brazil is smoother for the Netherlands which will be looking to maintain its perfect record when the Group D leader hosts lowly Estonia.

Germany has experienced one setback in Group C -- a draw -- but has a three-point lead as it hosts a Kazakhstan side with just one point.

England is in the weakest position of the leading teams, sitting two points behind Montenegro in Group H, but playing point-less San Marino on Friday while the leader is at Moldova.

In Madrid, Vicente del Bosque will break Ladislao Kubala's record of 68 games as Spain coach on Friday at Sporting Gijon's El Molinon Stadium.

Del Bosque has a record of 57 wins, five draws and six losses with Spain, including the title success at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship.

"I am not worried about the record," Del Bosque said. "I am worried about Finland and that my team arrives in the best possible condition to get the three points."

Finland is last in the group with one point from two games, while Georgia is three points from the bottom and the top.

Facing Georgia should be an opportunity for France's misfiring strikers to find the net, if they can breach their expected ultra-defensive opponents.

Karim Benzema has not scored in his past 10 matches for France while Olivier Giroud has scored only twice in 15 appearances.

"For me it's a bit difficult and Karim prefers playing centre forward," Giroud said. "But in a match where we have to score goals then why not pair us together?"

In Group C, Germany isn't even likely to deploy a striker against Kazakhstan, with Mario Gomez the only recognizable striker in the squad and Mario Goetze being considered for a Spain-style "false nine" role.

Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger welcomes comparisons with Spain.

"They play almost perfect. Eventually, we might even be able to replicate it," Schweinsteiger said. "The coach sees exactly which tactics are appropriate and we are generally at a very high level."

Germany has a three-point lead over the Swedes, who can be overtaken by Ireland if they lose to Giovanni Trapattoni's side on Friday.

In Group H, England's match against San Marino, which has only ever won one match and is joint-bottom of the FIFA rankings, is a chance for the injury-ravaged defence to play together before the tougher test at Montenegro on Tuesday.

"We have been in these situations before in different positions but we have got depth in terms of the younger players coming into the squad," midfielder Frank Lampard said. "We have to believe in them."

Even tighter than Group H is Group A, where Belgium is ahead of Croatia only on goal difference. They both play the teams who are six points below them on Friday, with Belgium at Macedonia and Croatia hosting Serbia.

It's similar in Group G where Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece are locked at the top on 10 points and separated only by goal difference before they meet on Friday.

In Group B, leader Italy is playing a friendly against Brazil on Thursday but can't be caught the following night when second-place Bulgaria, four points adrift, hosts point-less Malta.

In Group D, while the Netherlands hosts lowly Estonia, there is a meeting between Hungary and Romania, who are both three points behind the leaders.

Switzerland could be toppled from the Group E summit on Friday, with the team not in action and second-place Norway able to go top with a high-scoring victory over Albania.

Russia is already five points ahead in Group F going into the qualifier at Northern Ireland, which is yet to win. Israel and Portugal, who are level on points behind Russia, meet in Tel Aviv.

Spain players celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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