LONDON - Club football will be put on hold on Wednesday night as the international calendar returns with some intriguing friendlies across the world.
Five high-profile match-ups, all of which could feature at the 2014 World Cup Brazil in less than 500 days' time, are among the 30-odd international friendlies on the bill this week.
Old European rivalries resume, with France facing Germany and the Netherlands taking on Italy.
And there are three Europe-versus-South America clashes, with England playing Brazil, Sweden tackling Argentina and Spain facing off against Uruguay.
Luiz Felipe Scolari began his second spell in charge of Brazil by handing a surprise recall to Ronaldinho, 32, who has found a new lease of life at Atletico Mineiro. Scolari, who was reappointed in November 2012 having previously led Brazil to their last World Cup triumph at Korea/Japan 2002, has also brought experienced goalkeeper Julio Cesar back into the fold. The 33-year-old, along with Ronaldinho, had fallen out of favour with previous coach Mano Menezes. But he has been in fine form for Queens Park Rangers and will be hoping to add to his 64 international caps.
Scolari is spoilt for choice in attack, with star man Neymar (Santos), Fred (Fluminense), Hulk (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Lucas Moura (Paris Saint-Germain) and Luis Fabiano (Sao Paulo) all vying for starting roles. There is no place, however, for Kaka, who has struggled at Real Madrid and found playing opportunities limited. New coach Scolari will be all too aware of the limited time at his disposal, and will be keen to restore some sparkle to his side as quickly as possible.
England coach Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, has named an experienced squad, with left-back Ashley Cole expected to win his 100th cap. Hodgson will have to make do, however, without Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick and Daniel Sturridge, all of whom are injured.
Elsewhere, France coach Didier Deschamps has made Hugo Lloris, Mamadou Sakho, Blaise Matuidi and Karim Benzema the backbone of his team since taking charge in July 2012, and is slowly but surely fine-tuning his squad. The latest addition is Rennes forward Romain Alessandrini, 23, who this time last season was still playing in the French second division. Franck Ribery’s performance should also provide some intrigue, with the Bayern Munich winger poised to face several of his Bundesliga team-mates and rivals. France go into the game buoyed by two excellent recent displays: a 2-1 friendly victory in Italy and a valuable 1-1 draw with Spain in their qualifying group for Brazil 2014.
Despite holding the Netherlands to a goalless draw in November, Germany, for their part, are still smarting from their poor performance a month earlier against Sweden in which they conceded four goals in 28 minutes to draw 4-4. Coach Joachim Low also has a selection headache, with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Marcel Schmelzer, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze unavailable and Miroslav Klose, Ilkay Gundogan and Lars Bender all major doubts.
The Netherlands have gone five games unbeaten since their 4-2 defeat in Belgium back in August, thanks largely to a solid defence that has conceded just twice, and a potent forward line that has produced 13 goals. With that in mind, the core of Louis van Gaal’s squad is largely unchanged for the match against Italy. Van Gaal’s opposite number, Cesare Prandelli, has a bit more thinking to do, with Christian Maggio, Federico Balzaretti, Claudio Marchisio, Mattia Destro and Giorgio Chiellini all unavailable. Prandelli is also without Leonardo Bonucci, having dropped the Juventus defender for breaching his code of ethics in a recent game against Genoa. In-form Lazio goalkeeper Federico Marchetti returns to the squad for the first time since the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, while new AC Milan team-mates Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy will be looking to continue their burgeoning partnership.
Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina squad to face Sweden is almost entirely Europe-based, with Santos midfielder Walter Montillo the only player plying his trade in South America. The match provides a reunion for former Barcelona team-mates Lionel Messi, winner of four straight Ballon d’Or awards, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who hit four goals against England in November.
Reigning world champions Spain will be without the injured quintet of Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres, Roberto Soldado, Xavi and Xabi Alonso for their high-profile friendly against Uruguay and star player Luis Suarez in Doha. In their absence, Malaga starlet Isco will be hoping to make his senior debut. Uruguay, 16th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, go into the game in mixed form. La Celeste shipped seven goals in two games, losing 3-0 away to Argentina and 4-1 in Bolivia respectively, before improving with a 3-1 victory over Poland. (AP)
Republic of Ireland-Poland