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Sep 10, 2012

Spain confident as qualifying begins

MADRID -- Perfect in qualifying for tournaments since 2007 with 22 consecutive victories, Spain visits Georgia on Tuesday to take its first step toward the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and what would be an unprecedented fourth straight major title.

Spain retained the European Championship title earlier this year without career scoring leader David Villa, who returned from a broken leg for Friday's 5-0 exhibition rout of Saudi Arabia. Spain's last competitive loss was to Switzerland at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

"Playing in a World Cup in Brazil is something really important," midfielder Xavi Hernandez said on Monday.

Villa scored in his first international match since last year, adding to an already potent attack led by Fernando Torres, David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez. No team has won consecutive World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

"Being world and European champion doesn't guarantee you anything," Xavi said. "These are difficult matches. It's not going to be easy at all to get to the World Cup, even if some already think it's a done deal."

European qualifying began Friday, with Italy the only top team that failed to start with a victory.

A 2-2 draw at Bulgaria in Group B angered supporters. The Azzurri host 139th-ranked Malta.

"Our performance in Sofia was unacceptable," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "It's right that the marks in the newspapers were low. The squad was the most experienced that I've had in my two years as coach, which shows that the things you learn can be forgotten."

The Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, England and France all will try for 2-0 starts. While England routed Moldova 5-0 in Group H and the Dutch beat Turkey 2-0 in a potentially tricky Group D opener, Portugal was far from impressive in rallying to defeat Luxembourg 2-1.

Germany was expected to beat Faeroe Islands by a bigger margin than 3-0. France, which is in the same group as Spain, defeated Finland 1-0.

On Tuesday, France takes on Belarus -- the team that stunned Les Bleus with a surprise 1-0 win in Saint-Denis at the start of Euro 2012 qualifying -- and coach Didier Deschamps wants more from his forwards, who haven't scored in the team's past five matches. Karim Benzema has not scored in 11 games for club and country.

"We need to become more dangerous," said Deschamps, who also has Spain to contend with in qualifying. "Getting an attack to function is the hardest thing to do. (Against Finland) either we held onto the ball too long, or we didn't give it properly, or there weren't enough numbers up front."

Germany travels to Austria buoyed by a seven-match winning streak over its neighbor.

"It's going to be a heated encounter between neighbors in a sold-out stadium," Germany captain Philipp Lahm said.

England will be without Chelsea defenders Ashley Cole and John Terry for its home match against Ukraine due to injuries.

After its biggest road margin of victory in 19 years, England figures to have a tougher test in Ukraine. England beat Ukraine 1-0 in the first round of this year's European Championship.

"Ukraine are a quality team. They showed that in glimpses in the game during the European Championship," England midfielder Frank Lampard said. "They are certainly going to come to Wembley with intentions to make it difficult for us and show what they are about, so we will have to be on top form."

There are 25 qualifiers in Europe, while in South America, Argentina is likely to maintain its lead atop the standings.

Argentina defeated Paraguay 3-1 on Friday with goals from Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, and will be favored at Peru.

Through six matches, the Argentines lead South America with 13 points, followed by Chile and Ecuador with 12, Uruguay with 11 and Colombia with 10.

Radamel Falcao has carried over his club form to the national team after scoring in a 4-0 rout of Uruguay. The Atletico Madrid striker has seven goals in his past three games.

Colombia, whose last appearance at the World Cup was in 1998, faces a tough trip to Chile. Paraguay plays Venezuela, and Uruguay faces Ecuador.

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