Injuries take worrying toll ahead of Euro football qualifiers
Paris: Having managed to avoid major mishaps in their opening Euro 2012 qualifiers, the challenge facing Europe`s top sides is to sustain their momentum as injuries and other distractions begin to surface.
World and European champions Spain, beaten World Cup finalists the Netherlands, World Cup semi-finalists Germany and Italy have all made 100 percent starts to their bids to reach Poland and Ukraine in two years` time.
Spain kicked off their Group I campaign with a 4-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein, but they will face Lithuania on Friday without a number of influential players.
Barcelona playmaker Xavi heads a list of stars including Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez, Jesus Navas and Fernando Torres, all of whom played in the World Cup final, to have been ruled out by injury.
Pablo Hernandez and Aritz Aduriz of Spanish league leaders Valencia are among the players to have benefited, with coach Vicente del Bosque having drafted them into his squad for the home game in the western city of Salamanca.
"Xavi is important to the team but there are other players who have the calmness and the confidence to do his job," said centre-back Carlos Marchena.
Germany, beaten 1-0 by Spain in the World Cup semi-finals, have been hit with similar problems.
Influential midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger has been ruled out of the Group A clash with Turkey in Berlin due to an ankle injury, while skipper Michael Ballack is likely to be out until next year after fracturing his tibia.
"These things happen after a World Cup," coach Joachim Loew told German daily Bild in reference to Schweinsteiger`s absence with ligament damage.
“The players have only had a short time to prepare for the next season and the risk of getting injury is of course higher.”
Germany top the pool after a 1-0 win in Belgium and a 6-1 thrashing of Azerbaijan, but Friday`s game is likely to take place in a charged atmosphere due to the high number of Turks and people of Turkish descent living in Berlin.
Around 30,000 Turkey supporters are expected at the match, and visiting midfielder Hamit Altintop has fanned the flames by criticising Mesut Ozil`s motives for choosing to represent Germany despite having Turkish parents.
“If he had opted for Turkey, he would have not played in the World Cup and would not be at Real Madrid,” said Altintop, who was born in Germany and plays for Bayern Munich. “It is that simple.
“I knew I would always play for Turkey. I am very, very grateful to Germany. I have learned a lot and been given a lot of chances.
“But my mother is from Turkey and my father is from Turkey. I am a Turk.”
Another player steeling himself to face a hostile crowd is Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, whose team take on Northern Ireland at Belfast`s notoriously raucous Windsor Park.
Victories against Estonia and the Faroe Islands sent the 2006 world champions top of Group C, but Chiellini is anticipating a sterner test in the forthcoming matches against Northern Ireland and Serbia.
“These are crucial matches. Starting with Ireland, who only just missed out on the World Cup, and they get excited at home,” said the Juventus centre-back.
“We have to be ready for a sporting battle. Serbia are more technical but they are two equally difficult matches.”
In stark contrast to Spain, Germany and Italy, Portugal have endured a torrid start to their qualifying attempt.
The Euro 2004 finalists drew 4-4 at home to unfancied Cyprus in their Group H opener before losing 1-0 to Norway, prompting coach Carlos Queiroz to be shown the exit.
They welcome back talisman and captain Cristiano Ronaldo for the visit of Denmark on Friday though, and the mercurial Real Madrid forward says he is ready to come to his country`s rescue.
“I feel better and better. I feel confident and ready to help the Seleccao,” said the former Manchester United star, after netting twice in Real`s 6-1 defeat of Deportivo La Coruna at the weekend.
“We`re not where we should be. Now there isn`t much room for error -- we have to win.”
France, like Portugal, began their qualifying bid in underwhelming style when they went down 1-0 at home to Belarus, but they responded by beating chief Group D rivals Bosnia-Hercegovina 2-0 in Sarajevo in their last outing.
Laurent Blanc`s men tackle Romania at the Stade de France on Saturday.
The Netherlands visit Moldova in Group E, with Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk having decided to drop Nigel de Jong after the Manchester City player broke the leg of Newcastle`s Hatem Ben Arfa in an English Premier League game on Sunday.
England, who won their opening two matches, are not in action until a home game with Group G co-leaders Montenegro next Tuesday.