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Home >> Sports
UPDATED: 08:12, March 01, 2006
World Cup countdown kicks off
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The World Cup countdown kicks off on Wednesday night as the competition's favourites begin their warm-up matches a little over three months before the start of Germany's football extravaganza.

Brazil, Argentina, France, England, Germany and Italy, for many football pundits the top nations at the June 9 to July 9 event, are all in action on a night of international friendlies.

Brazil travel to Moscow to face Russia and Argentina meet Croatia in Basel, Switzerland, as the perennial top teams of South America begin their build-up to the footballing bonanza.

Surely the most intriguing fixture is between Italy and Germany in Florence, given the two nations' success over the years.

Both countries are among the favourites in Germany this summer given their rich international pedigree, with three World Cup wins apiece and four European championship triumphs between them.

England meet Uruguay in Liverpool as preparation for their opening World Cup match against another South American side in Paraguay while 1998 world champions France host Slovakia at the Stade de France to the north of Paris.

Ronaldinho will miss Brazil's match after picking up an injury in Barcelona's Champions League win against Chelsea last week.

The World Footballer of the Year left Stamford Bridge with a swollen left ankle but was still considered fit enough to turn out for Barcelona against Real Zaragoza on Saturday.

But after scoring a penalty in the 2-0 win the injury flared up again forcing Ronaldinho to leave the pitch before the final whistle.

Ronaldinho joins AC Milan keeper Dida and Julio Cesar (Inter Milan) on the sidelines for Wednesday's game at Lokomotiv Moscow's ground.

Brazil face Croatia, Australia and Japan in the World Cup group stages.

Italy coach Marcello Lippi is relishing the opportunity to pit his wits against the tournament hosts.

"They are a great team with a wonderful history, and as hosts of the World Cup they are very ambitious," he said.

"For us it's one of the last real tests before we fly out to Germany, one that we hope will build our confidence."

Lippi said he hoped the Italy fans would get behind his team at the Artemio Franchi stadium, home of Serie A side Fiorentina.

"We are playing in Florence where the people are passionate about football and a lot will depend on their support."

Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann played down his side's chances of victory against the Azzurri.

"Italy have quality in every position, and Lippi's squad is more mature and more experienced than ours," said the 41-year-old, who took control of Germany in July 2004.

"They have a team full of champions while we are a young side looking for its identity, one that plays aggressive, attacking football."

England's match is the first time the squad has got together since it was announced that Sven-Goran Eriksson would be stepping down as manager after the tournament.

"The anticipation of the World Cup is building more and more with every week now," midfielder Frank Lampard said. "As the season goes on, it becomes sharper in your mind and you can't help but start to get excited about it."

Lampard is one of at least 18 players who are certain to make Eriksson's final squad for the finals and time is running out for fringe players such as Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing, who missed out on the squad for this friendly, to squeeze in.

For those who are on England duty this week, it could be make-or-break time for Charlton striker Darren Bent, who is giving Jermain Defoe a run for his money in the battle to be named as Michael Owen's back-up.

Left-back Wayne Bridge also has to prove himself worthy of a place on the plane having moved on loan to Fulham to ensure he gets regular football after spending the first half of the season sidelined at Chelsea.

Amongst the England players there appears to be a genuine belief that they can go all the way in Germany, although doubts remain about whether Eriksson has really found a way of effectively meshing the similar styles of Lampard and Gerrard in the crucial central midfield departments.

France, who will be relying on the experience of veteran star Zinedine Zidane in Germany, had a last-minute setback in their preparations for the Slovakia fixture.

Chelsea defender William Gallas has a muscular problem in a leg and 22-year-old Nantes midfielder Jeremy Toulalan was called up as a replacement.

Source: China Daily


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