Spain and Italy on alert as mighty meet minnows
LONDON (Reuters) - Holders Spain face a tricky trip to Belarus in World Cup 2014 qualifying on Friday when a host of top European sides take on unheralded nations as they bid to avoid sizeable shocks en route to Brazil.
The Spanish know only too well that their Group I game in Minsk is far from a foregone conclusion after midfielder Javi Martinez's club side Bayern Munich lost 3-1 at Belarussian champions BATE Borisov in the Champions League last week.
A late 1-0 win in Georgia for the world and European champions in their group opener last month was also a reminder of the tiresome cliche that there are "no easy games", even if the Netherlands and England do have simple-looking matches.
The Dutch, the 2010 runners-up, host tiny Andorra in Group D while England, who drew 1-1 at home with Ukraine in a lacklustre second Group H game, welcome a San Marino side joint bottom of the FIFA rankings before a tougher test in Poland on Tuesday.
Steven Gerrard is suspended after a red card against Ukraine last month so Frank Lampard is set to take the armband with Chelsea club mate Ashley Cole also hoping to play despite an expletive tweet against the English Football Association.
Martinez warned not just his Spain side but the whole of Europe to the potential of banana skins, with six BATE players likely to start for Belarus.
"Because they have so many BATE players in the squad probably they will play in a similar way," Martinez told a news conference.
"BATE are a team that look to play on the counter attack, they are physically very strong and they don't give you many scoring chances."
Italy and Germany have similar matches to Spain's, ones they should easily win but that on occasions provide a bolt from the blue.
The Germans travel to injury-hit Ireland looking to make it three wins from three in Group C and Euro 2012 runners-up Italy visit unknowns Armenia in Group B.
Germany's Mario Goetze and Lukas Podolski are nursing minor knocks but will be fit for the Dublin clash, however, defender Mats Hummels is out and captain Philipp Lahm is suspended.
"Even despite the missing players we can handle any absence because of our team's strength," said assistant coach Hansi Flick, whose outfit host Sweden next Tuesday.
One player expected to fit for arguably the juiciest-looking clash on Friday is Real Madrid's Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who is in line to face Russia away in Group F having almost recovered from a shoulder injury sustained against Barcelona.
Defender Pepe is a doubt for Portugal with a thigh problem.
In another intriguing encounter, Belgium - many pundits' outside tip to shine when the soccer carnival rolls into Brazil in two years' time - go to Serbia in Group A but giant afro-haired midfielder Marouane Fellaini is injured.
Among other matches in European qualification on Friday, Group B rivals Bulgaria and Denmark clash while the Czech Republic are at home to Malta.
Sweden go to fellow Scandinavians the Faroe Islands looking for bags of goals in Group C.
British duo Wales and Scotland do battle in Cardiff in Group A hoping to gain the upper hand and put themselves in an improved position for Tuesday's bumper round of matches.
The standout game next week is Spain hosting France, who face Japan in a friendly at the Stade de France on Friday.
(Editing by Alison Wildey)
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