Spain wary of Belarus in World Cup qualifier
European Football Headlines
By STEVE DOUGLAS
AP Sports Writer
LONDON (AP) A club side from Belarus caused one of the biggest surprises in Champions League history last week. Now, the country's national team has a chance to spring another against world champion Spain.
Belarus, without a point from two Group I games and the world's 87th-ranked team, hosts Spain in one of the biggest mismatches of Friday's World Cup qualifiers.
The Spanish have won their last 23 qualifying matches, stretching back more than five years, but are wary of their opponents in light of BATE Borisov's 3-1 victory over German club Bayern Munich in a Champions League group match on Oct. 2.
"BATE is a team that looks to hit on the counterattack," said Spain defender Javi Martinez, who played for Bayern in its loss to a side containing several Belarus internationals. "They are physically very strong and they don't concede many scoring chances. I imagine (Belarus) will play the same way.
"Everyone wants to beat us," Martinez added. "It is an extra motivation for them, and we have to keep that in mind."
A win for Spain would bring Vicente del Bosque's team level on points with France, which isn't in action on Friday, ahead of their highly anticipated meeting on Tuesday.
Of Europe's other major powers, Italy has made the least convincing start to qualifying after only edging past Malta before being held 2-2 by Bulgaria in Group B.
The Azzurri, thrashed 4-0 by Spain in this year's European Championship final, travel to Armenia while England and the Netherlands should pile up the goals in home matches against San Marino (Group H) and Andorra (Group D), respectively.
Portugal, whose star forward Cristiano Ronaldo appears to have overcome a shoulder injury, has the toughest task of the continent's big guns when it visits Russia in a match between teams with two straight wins in Group F. Germany, also perfect after two games, could have it tough in its match at Ireland in Group C, too.
Spain last failed to win a qualifying match for either the World Cup or European Championship in September 2007, when it drew 1-1 with Iceland in Reykjavik.
Since then, the team has won an unprecedented three straight major tournaments and began its bid for a fourth by beating Georgia 1-0 last month.
Del Bosque's squad will return to eastern Europe this week with problems in defense, with first-choice center backs Carles Puyol (elbow) and Gerard Pique (foot) out injured.
That has led to a recall for Martinez - the only new addition to the squad - who will fight with Raul Albiol for a place alongside Sergio Ramos at the heart of the defense.
Any worries about fallout from Sunday's "clasico" between leading Spanish teams Barcelona and Real Madrid were, for the first time in a long time, ill-founded.
The game, which finished 2-2, was pulsating but free of negative incident - no red cards, no scuffles and just a few heated words afterward.
Ronaldo, who scored twice for Madrid, emerged from the match with doubts about the state of his left shoulder after falling heavily on it during the match but resumed training on Wednesday.
He is expected to play in Moscow along with Madrid teammate Pepe, who is fit after a left thigh problem.
Portugal has started with uninspiring victories over Luxembourg (2-1 away) and Azerbaijan (3-0 after two late goals), while Russia is coming off a 4-0 thrashing of Israel, maintaining its unbeaten run under coach Fabio Capello.
"We're going through a period of good form but Russia works well as a team and defends well," Pepe said Wednesday before the squad left for Moscow. "It's a very important game but it won't be decisive."
Italy is focusing on youth in these qualifiers and Serie A's most impressive youngster this season - Stephan El Shaarawy - has been handed his chance this week.
The 19-year-old AC Milan striker made his debut in a friendly against England in August but this is his first inclusion for a competitive international fixture, joining fit-again Mario Balotelli in the squad.
"The national team is looking to take things forward with fresh forces, with young players who are establishing themselves on important stages," Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said. "We hope that these players will grow quickly on a technical level and also in their characters. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil isn't that far away."
England's build-up to an international match has been typically frenetic, with center back John Terry having retired from national team duty and Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole jeopardizing his England future by posting an unwise Twitter message criticizing the Football Association. Both incidents are linked to a racism case involving Terry that has been strung out for nearly a year.
Cole has made peace with England management but Hodgson still has the headache of who should replace Terry in defense, with Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott, Gary Cahill and the uncapped Ryan Shawcross the options.
Defense shouldn't be a problem against San Marino - joint-bottom of the FIFA rankings and with only one international victory to its name - but will be a key department when England visits Poland on Tuesday.
England is level on four points with the Poles and Montenegro in Group H.
Updated October 10, 2012