World Cup teams gear up for Brazil
The countdown begins in earnest for the 32 teams taking part in the World Cup in summer in a range of friendly internationals on Wednesday.
The matches represent one of the last opportunities for players to impress, while coaches will be putting the finishing touches to their squad planning for Brazil.
World champions Spain are playing 2006 champions Italy in the pick of the games but there are several top encounters between World Cup teams, with France against the Netherlands another highlight.
Nine matches will pit World Cup qualifiers against each other, while World Cup hosts Brazil are playing South Africa in Johannesburg and South American powerhouses Argentina take on Romania in Bucharest.
Among the top games, which come 99 days before Brazil open the tournament against Croatia in Sao Paulo, Germany host Chile, and England play Denmark, while in matches between European and African qualifiers, Portugal encounter Cameroon, and Belgium meet Ivory Coast.
Ukraine’s match with United States, originally set for Kharkiv, has meanwhile been moved to Larnaca, Cyprus because of Ukraine’s political unrest.
Spain’s encounter with Italy is one of the high-profile games, with the Azzurri looking for a boost against a side which beat them 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012 and in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup last year.
Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa, who has opted to play for Spain instead of his native Brazil, is expected to make his debut in his own Estadio Calderon.
“I’m very happy about being called up by Del Bosque, and it’s very special because the game against Italy is in the Calderon,” Costa said.
Spain manager Vicente del Bosque omitted veterans Alvaro Arbeloa, David Villa and Fernando Torres, all of whom were important in Spain’s triumphs from 2008 to 2012.
Meanwhile, Italy could be without AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, who is doubtful with a shoulder injury.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has called up two uncapped players in defender Gabriel Paletta of Parma and striker Ciro Immobile of Torino.
France coach Didier Deschamps has brought in uncapped Real Sociedad winger Antoine Griezmann and Paris Saint-Germain left-back Lucas Digne for the game against the Netherlands.
Dutch coach Louis van Gaal meanwhile named four newcomers, Jean-Paul Boetius of Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven’s Karim Rekik, Davy Klaassen of Ajax and Twente winger Quincy Promes.
Germany coach Joachim Loew also named four uncapped players for the match in Stuttgart against Chile and has indicated some mainstays may have to miss the plane to Brazil.
“I am going to have to hurt some players,” Loew said of his squad selection in early May.
England’s match against Denmark is the final audition for players looking to force their way into Roy Hodgson’s squad for the World Cup.
“The Denmark game is very much a game where I’ve got to think about what experimentations I need,” Hodgson said.