March Madness, soccer-style
International breaks are usually a nuisance, disrupting domestic title races and such. But in this case, it's not so bad. In Europe, five months have passed since a full slate of Euro 2012 qualifiers. All the heavyweights see action this weekend at the midway stage, including both World Cup finalists.
Here are six games that catch the eye. Group position is in parentheses:
Group G: Wales (5) vs. England (2)
Perhaps the toughest job in soccer is being England manager. No matter the quality of the players available, to say nothing of the quality of the opponent, a rabid press and passionate fan base expect the boss to deliver a win. Every. Single. Time.
Just ask Fabio Capello. Confident before taking the job in 2007, the Italian is feeling the heat.
How else to describe his handling of the captaincy situation? Capello replaced John Terry last year due to the player's off-field indiscretion, giving the armband to Rio Ferdinand. (Can any team make the armband more of a soap opera than the Three Lions? Doubtful.) But this week, going back against his word, Capello reinstated Terry full-time, even though the Manchester United defender had barely put a foot wrong. Ferdinand could hardly have controlled his lone faux pas -- perennial injury.
The brouhaha has dominated the buildup to Saturday's clash at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, where a packed house of 70,000 will be in full voice. You can watch it on ESPN3 and ESPN2 at 11 a.m. ET.
When Wales or Scotland confronts England, more is at stake than usual. This marks the 100th installment of their rivalry. Further, Welshman Gary Speed makes his competitive debut as boss for this match, only racheting up the intensity.
Speed vows to play an attractive brand of soccer, which marks a change from older, crustier predecessor John Toshack. In speedy winger Craig Bellamy and central midfielder Aaron Ramsey, he has options as Wales tries for its first points in qualifying. However, it suffered a massive blow Thursday when winger Gareth Bale -- on fire this season with Tottenham -- was ruled out due to a hamstring injury.
Ramsey figures to have an intriguing battle with Arsenal teammate Jack Wilshere in the middle of the park. Up top for England, Capello just might go with the partnership of Wayne Rooney, a lock even if he wasn't in good form, and the back-from-injury Andy Carroll.
Group I: Spain (1) vs. Czech Republic (2)
Fernando Torres has been discussing Spain's desire this week, saying that trying to achieve an unprecedented European Championship-World Cup-European Championship treble is providing ample motivation. No letting up, he insists.
But will Torres be an integral part of the campaign? He's mired in a slump that dates to when he was injured last spring, and he wasn't fully fit at the World Cup in South Africa. Since his controversial, high-profile move from Liverpool to Chelsea in January, El Nino hasn't scored. Overall, it's eight games without netting. Unless he finds his scoring boots, Torres' place on Spain's squad can't be guaranteed. So Friday's match (watch it on ESPN3 at 5 p.m. ET) is Torres' chance to gain some momentum and put one past his club teammate, keeper Petr Cech.
Gone are the days of the Czechs challenging for major titles; they flopped at World Cup 2006 and Euro 2008 when expectations were heightened. The likes of Pavel Nedved, Patrik Berger and Karel Poborsky have long departed, with Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros far from their prime.
Coach Michal Bilek has nonetheless steadied the ship after a 1-0 loss at home to Lithuania to start qualifying, collecting two victories to sit three points behind Spain. He'll also be buoyed by the fact that Spain will be missing the triumvirate of influential defenders Carles Puyol, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro on Friday. Unfortunately for Bilek, Pedro's Barcelona teammates Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa will all be present.
Villa, in particular, will be up for this match -- he needs just one more goal to surpass Raul as Spain's all-time scoring leader.
Group C: Slovenia (2) vs. Italy (1)
Slovenia continues to punch above its weight. The tiniest nation at the World Cup, Slovenia had the U.S. in deep trouble before a typical rally from Bob Bradley's troops. Just to qualify, Slovenia eliminated a talented Russian side under Guus Hiddink. Given Hiddink's tendency of working miracles with lesser-known or underachieving outfits, it was quite the scalp.
Italy won't need to be reminded of its neighbor's exploits. Slovenia upset the Azzurri in a 2002 post-World Cup friendly and handed them their first World Cup qualifying loss in 11 years in 2004, both 1-0 results. You can watch both teams square off on Friday at 3:45 p.m. ET.
Slovenia, three points behind Italy, still relies on its defense, with Samir Handanovic -- who plies his trade at Udinese -- impressive in goal. As for Italy, it took a dismal display in South Africa for Italian soccer to finally go with youth, although boss Cesare Prandelli rightfully omitted the petulant Mario Balotelli for this one. But fellow bad boy Antonio Cassano leads the lineup front Friday.
Group E: Hungary (2) vs. Netherlands (1)
Watch out for the destroyer, Nigel de Jong. Mark van Bommel's absence means the Manchester City enforcer may feature as the Dutch, World Cup finalists, embark on a home-and-away doubleheader against the Hungarians, who crave their success of the 1950s, when they were armed with legendary forward Ferenc Puskas. You can watch this match on Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Van Bommel is one of four key men missing for the Oranje, which must give Hungary hope. Also injured are Arjen Robben, who remains one of the world's best wingers; goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, rock solid in South Africa; and forward Klaas Jan Huntelaar. While Huntelaar is a frequent target of criticism for his unproductive spells at Real Madrid and AC Milan, he leads Euro qualifying with eight goals.
That said, the Dutch have ample depth, so beating Hungary shouldn't be much of a problem. They won't need to do much scouting on Hungary's star player, too, since winger Balazs Dzsudzsak lines up for PSV.
Group H: Norway (1) vs. Denmark (3)
Mention the name Egil Olsen in a part of southwest London and you're bound to receive a few dirty looks. Under Olsen, Wimbledon's "Crazy Gang" was relegated from the Premier League in 2000 and never recovered, subsequently turning into the MK Dons.
Back at home, Olsen is much better received, having guided Norway to a pair of World Cups in 1994 and 1998 to end a 50-plus-year drought. In 1998, Norway even advanced to the second round, upsetting Brazil in a 2-1 thriller along the way.
In his second stint as manager, taking over in 2009, the eccentric 68-year-old has guided Norway to a 3-0 record in Euro qualifying; Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Russia, all more established, are the only other unblemished teams. Norway's three wins were impressive, too: against Portugal and at Iceland and Cyprus. The long ball might not be pretty, but it's proving effective for Olsen's men. He'll no doubt use it when his team faces Denmark, which will be on ESPN3 at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday.
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Denmark won the first six games against Norway in all competitions, amassing a hefty 39 goals. But that was around 100 years ago. Things are a little closer now, with the Danes holding a 5-4-1 advantage in their past 10 head-to-heads.
If Norway does earn three more points Saturday, Euro 2012 is within reach. The Danes, who ultimately disappointed in South Africa, would realistically be eliminated.
Group A: Germany (1) vs. Kazakhstan (6)
This one on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET could get ugly.
Kazakhstan rests at a desolate 132nd in the FIFA rankings, three spots above fellow European minnows the Faroe Islands. Only twice in its past 13 games has Kazakhstan triumphed, with Oman (110th in the rankings) and Andorra (202nd) the victims.
And through four matches in Group A, Kazakhstan hasn't scored.
Germany doesn't hold back against substandard opposition, evidenced by a 13-0 thrashing at San Marino in European qualifying five years ago. The score when the teams met in October, 3-0, seemed respectable enough, though Kazakh soccer officials subsequently sacked manager Bernd Storck, a German.
All is good in German soccer at the moment. Popular manager Joachim Low, who led the side to a semifinal showing in South Africa with an attacking game plan, signed a two-year contract extension. And evergreen striker Miroslav Klose marks his 10th-year anniversary as an international.
Ravi Ubha covers tennis and soccer for ESPN.com.
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