Cristiano Ronaldo returns after injury for Portugal. Adriano is recalled from the cold for Brazil. Michael Owen is still shut out by England coach Fabio Capello.
World Cup qualifying returns Saturday. With it comes the sight of the big stars back in national team colors and, for some, the uncertainty of whether their international careers are over.
Qualifying for the 2010 championship in South Africa picks up speed with two rounds in Europe and South America and also matches in Africa, Asia and the North and Central America region.
European champion Spain and England have a great chance to pull away from their rivals while surprise South American leader Paraguay is confident of staying four points ahead of Brazil and Argentina.
After winning Euro 2008 to end 44 years without a title, Spain still looks strong and has a maximum six points in European Group 5 and already has a two-point advantage over Turkey and Belgium.
The Spaniards are also on a run of 25 games unbeaten and hope to continue that with victories at Estonia and Belgium. Coach Vicente del Bosque, the successful former Real Madrid manager who took over from Luis Aragones after Spain’s European triumph in Austria in June, has stuck with most of that squad and declined to call up 18-year-old rising FC Barcelona star Bojan Krkic.
England wasn’t there when Spain won Euro 2008 because it failed to qualify. Capello has revived its hopes of getting to the World Cup however, surviving a shaky spell of exhibitions to win 4-1 at Croatia—the team that stopped it reaching the Euros.
“I hope we have finally knocked the monkey off our back,” Capello said. “Victory was important because we had lost the English spirit, our aggressiveness, the boldness, our confidence. After failing to qualify for the European Championship we were full of fear, notably when we played at Wembley. I knew we would play better abroad and we did.”
England returns to Wembley on Saturday fully confident it will beat Kazakhstan and then move on to Belarus to make it 12 points from four games. England has never played either nation before but Owen won’t be there to mark those two minor milestones because Capello hasn’t selected him.
The former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker has scored four times for struggling Newcastle but even that hasn’t convinced the Italian coach he was worthy of a spot.
Alessandro Del Piero is another veteran who is scoring for his club, Juventus, but he has been overlooked by national coach Marcello Lippi for qualifying matches against Bulgaria and Montenegro. Injured and unavailable were goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Mauro Camoranesi, Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Grosso and Marco Materazzi.
The coach who led the Italians to their World Cup triumph in Berlin two years ago has called up a newcomer, Giuseppe Rossi, whose 11 goals helped Villarreal finish second in the Spanish league last season.
Having conceded two late goals in a 3-2 loss at home to Denmark, Portugal hopes the return of Ronaldo will lift the team from fourth place in Group 1 by beating Sweden and surprise group leader Albania. The winger whose 42 goals helped Manchester United win the English Premier and Champions Leagues last season, appears to have overcome the acrimony he faced by saying he wanted to leave for Real Madrid. ow he is back in form after being out three months with an ankle injury.
Germany tops its group but need to emphatically beat nearest rivals Russia and Wales to restore confidence that it can win the title for the fourth time. France, fourth in Group 7, hopes a victory at fifth-place Romania will revive its hopes of getting to South Africa.
Brazil is trying to climb out of a slump and coach Dunga is under fire for winning only three of its first eight qualifying games and failing to get the best out of his hugely talented squad. Brazil next faces Venezuela and Colombia.
The top four squads in the 10-team qualifying group are sure to make it to the World Cup. Brazil is four points behind Paraguay. Argentina, even on points with Brazil in third place, hosts Uruguay and then visits Chile.