Italy face Lithuania as Euro 2008 qualifiers begin
LONDON, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Italy will be hoping to mark their World Cup success in July by giving their fans more to celebrate in their opening Euro 2008 qualifier against Lithuania in Naples on Saturday.
Italy fielded a B team in their friendly international defeat to Croatia two weeks ago, but new coach Roberto Donadoni will be calling up the majority of his World Cup winning team for the Group B game.
When the Italians face Lithuania, it will be 55 days since they beat France on penalties in Berlin to win the World Cup for the fourth time. But since then Italian soccer has suffered in the wake of the Serie A match-fixing scandal.
In four matches between the countries since 1995 Italy have won three times and drawn once without conceding a goal, and Lithuania are not expected to trouble the world champions too heavily on Saturday.
Italy will be keen not to make any mistakes - especially as they face France in a quick repeat of the World Cup final in their second qualifier in Paris next Wednesday.
France begin a new era without Zinedine Zidane, who retired after the World Cup, with an away game against Georgia. It will be the first meeting between the teams.
Georgia began their qualifying campaign for the finals in Austria and Switzerland in just under two years time with a 6-0 win over the Faroe Islands on Aug. 16 - their biggest competitive win since making their debut as an independent country 12 years ago.
Georgia's new German manager Klaus Toppmoeller has promised to make it tough for the visitors who will not welcome the stifling heat and humidity of Tblisi where the temperature has been close to 40 degrees Celsius (104.00F) in the past week.
Germany, playing their first qualifying matches since 2003 after being exempt from having to qualify for the World Cup finals, face Ireland in Stuttgart under new coach Joachim Loew, boosted by a 3-0 friendly win over Sweden two weeks ago.
Ireland on the other hand were thrashed 4-0 at home in a friendly by Netherlands on the same night, and although Loew is facing an injury crisis with four central defenders out injured of the Group D match, he is confident Germany can win.
"The World Cup is over and we must inspire a new form of euphoria now," said the man who succeeded his former boss Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach.
"Despite the injury problems we want six points from the first two matches."
Germany should not have any problems getting at least three of those points next Wednesday when they travel to play tiny San Marino.
England should also pick up three easy points in their opening Group E match on Saturday when they meet minnows Andorra.
England beat European champions Greece 4-0 in a friendly in their first game under new coach Steve McLaren and anything other than a resounding victory over Andorra will be regarded as a failure for the home side.
Estonia play Israel in the other game in the group before the Israelis meet Andorra in neutral Nijmegen in the Netherlands next Wednesday when England face a tricky game in Macedonia.
Saturday's matches also mark a new era for Serbia, who will be playing competitively for the first time under new Spanish coach Javier Clemente since their split from Montenegro.
Other coaches looking to make a big impact in new jobs are Dutchmen Leo Beenhakker, who has swapped Trinidad & Tobago for Poland and Guus Hiddink, who has left Australia for Russia.
Poland start their campaign against Roy Hodgson's Finland in Group A, while Russia kick off against Croatia in Moscow on Wednesday in Group E.
Greece, who have failed to impress since surprisingly winning Euro 2004 in Portugal, begin their campaign in Moldova in Group C.
Turkey start their campaign on Wednesday in neutral Frankfurt after being banned from playing home matches by FIFA.
The qualifying competition lasts until November next year with the top two teams in each of the seven groups going through to the finals along with the joint hosts from Austria and Switzerland who will both be taking part in a four-team competition along with Venezuela and Costa Rica this weekend.