Europe starts trudges toward South Africa 2010 with World Cup qualifying games this weekend across the continent. The wrinkle in the process this time around is that that nine group winners get through automatically, while the best eight second-place finishers are paired into two-leg playoffs, with the four winners advancing. Simple, right?
Here are some of the highlight matches this weekend after the jump:
- Andorra vs. England (at Olympic Stadium, Barcelona) -- Rio Ferdinand is out. David Beckham might be in. Nothing short of a 3-0 win probably doesn't satisfy England fans. At least with Steven Gerrard out to injury, the whole Frank Lampard/Gerrard scenario won't crept into play again. It's fun to crap on the England team, but there might not be a sports team in the entire world with as much pressure on it game-in, game-out as the Three Lions. At times you'd think the English press would find a way to poo-poo a 10-0 win over Brasil. Fabio Capello, buona fortuna sir. Perhaps Andorra got a lift from Jose Mourinho's visit for those Adidas spots during Euro 2008.
- Liechtenstein vs. Germany -- Not exactly a marquee matchup, even if German captain Michael Ballack is out. Why this is highlighted is that Der German beat San Marino 13-0 in Euro 2008 qualifying, so can they top that against the Alpine microstate?
- Austria vs. France -- Group 7 is pretty open for second place behind presumed winners France. If the Euro 2008 co-hosts Austria can get a result it puts them in good shape for second place with Serbia and Romania. Amazingly, France still has Raymond Domenech reading the stars for his lineups.
- Georgia vs. Republic of Ireland (at Mainz, Germany) -- If you've paid even a passing glance to the news, you know Georgia isn't the best place in the world to live right now. On top of that, the qualifier had to be moved to Germany. Maybe the war galvanizes the squad. Ireland has missed out on the last two major tournaments so it needs a good start.
- Cyprus vs. Italy -- Italy's first match in the return of 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi. Meanwhile, Cyprus has become a tough nut to crack, especially at home with home draws to the Republic of Ireland and Germany in Euro 2008 qualifying. The Azzurri will have their work cut out for them.
- Macedonia vs. Scotland -- Group 9 only has five teams, with four presumably playing for second behind the Netherlands. Scotland came close to Euro 2008, so it needs to start with a positive result against a tricky FYR Macedonia squad. It'll be interesting to see if manager George Burnley can keep the positive momentum started by Alex McLeish.
Qualification runs until October 2009. For a list of televised broadcasts, click here.