Spain take first step towards history
Perfect in qualifying for tournaments since 2007 with 22 consecutive victories, Spain visit Georgia on Tuesday to take their first step toward the 2014 World Cup and an attempt to win an unprecedented fourth straight major title.
Spain retained the European Championship title earlier this year without all-time leading scorer David Villa, who is back from injury for the Group I qualifier with the team in perfect shape after a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia in a friendly.
Spain's last competitive loss was to Switzerland at the last World Cup in South Africa, and the chance to play at the next edition in Brazil is spurring on the players.
"Playing in a World Cup in Brazil is something really important," midfielder Xavi Hernandez said on Monday. "It's an extra motivation to play against Brazil, which this group still hasn't had an opportunity to do."
Villa is available after scoring on his return to the national team against the Saudis on Friday, providing an already potent attack led by Fernando Torres, David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez with further verve.
"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."
Qualifying in the European zone began Friday, with Italy the only top side to fail to start with a victory.
A 2-2 draw in Bulgaria in Group B was greeted with derision by the national media, with the Azzurri showing little of the form that took them to Euro 2012 final in which they lost 4-0 to Spain.
It will be a mighty shock if the Italians don't put things right against Malta, ranked 139th by Fifa.
"Our performance in Sofia was unacceptable," said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. "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 will all look to make it two wins from two after opening up with contrasting victories on Friday.
While England thrashed Moldova 5-0 in Group H and the Dutch beat Turkey 2-0 in a potentially tricky Group D opener, Portugal were far from impressive in seeing off Luxembourg 2-1 after going behind early on.
Germany were expected to beat Faeroe Islands by a bigger margin than 3-0 and France, who are in the same group as Spain, only scraped past Finland 1-0.
On Tuesday, France take 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.
Indeed, star striker Karim Benzema has not scored in his past 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 travel to Austria buoyed by a seven-match winning streak over their neighbour and arelooking to emulate their run in Euro 2012 qualifying and finish with a perfect record.
"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 the home match against Ukraine after they were ruled out because of injury at the weekend.
Against Moldova, Roy Hodgson's side strolled to the country's biggest away win in 19 years. But Ukraine will provide a sterner test and was unlucky to lose 1-0 to the English in a group game in Euro 2012.
"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 are likely to maintain their lead atop the standings in matches on Tuesday.
Argentina defeated Paraguay 3-1 on Friday with goals from Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, and will be favoured at Peru.
Through six matches, the Argentines lead the South American group with 13 points, followed by Chile and Ecuador with 12, Uruguay with 11 and Colombia on 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, face a tough trip to Chile on Tuesday, when Paraguay play Venezuela and Uruguay face Ecuador.