| LONDON, March 24
LONDON, March 24 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
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
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.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury; To query or comment on this
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