International club soccer takes a break around most of the world this week as the road to the 2014 World Cup continues with the next round of qualifying matches.
One batch was played on Friday, and the second batch is on Tuesday. Among the marquee games on the schedule: France vs. Spain (3 p.m., ESPN2), Chile vs. Argentina, Bolivia vs. Uruguay, Poland vs. England, Germany vs. Sweden, USA vs. Guatemala (7:15 p.m., ESPN2), and Mexico vs. El Salvador.
No question the game between France and Spain in Madrid offers the most sizzling matchup. You’ve got the winners of three of the past four European championships and two of the past four World Cups. France was the team of the late 1990s, and Spain is now the undisputed team to beat.
The last time the teams played each other was the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, and Spain won 2-0.
But France has a new coach this time, Didier Deschamps, and he’s got his team playing much better. France and Spain lead the group with six points. The Spaniards will not be at full strength, as Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are injured, but they looked sharp in a 4-0 win over Belarus on Friday.
The match is especially intriguing because it features so many club teammates playing against each other. France’s Gaël Clichy and Spain’s David Silva play for Manchester City; France’s Olivier Giroud and Spain’s Santi Cazorla play for Arsenal; and France’s Karim Benzema plays for Real Madrid alongside many of Spain’s biggest stars.
England heads into the Poland match hoping to put behind off-field drama involving defender Ashley Cole, who was fined two weeks’ wages ($360,000) by Chelsea after an obscenity-laced Twitter tirade against the Football Association. He was mad that an FA report on the John Terry racism case implied that Cole lied, or at the very least embellished, in his testimony.
Cole removed his offensive Twitter post, and apologized to FA chairman David Bernstein.
England coach Roy Hodgson left Cole off the roster for Friday’s match against San Marino, but insisted it was for “footballing reasons’’ and not because of the disciplinary action. Cole is expected back on the field against Poland.
South America is at the halfway point of qualifying. Brazil earns an automatic spot as World Cup host. Through seven matches, Argentina led with 14 points, followed by Colombia and Ecuador with 13, Uruguay and Chile with 12, and Venezuela with 11.
Meanwhile, the U.S. team plays its final opening-round match Tuesday against Guatemala at Kansas City’s Livestrong Sporting Park. Los Chapines, as the Guatemalans are nicknamed, have done surprisingly well thus far and entered this weekend tied with the United States for the group lead.
Their Uruguayan coach, Ever Almeida, said that the team was inspired by the U-20 team, which knocked out the United States to earn a spot in the U20 World Cup.
“There was an important psychological boost for Guatemalan sport, as it showed that nothing is impossible in football as long as you work in an organized manner and are confident in your own ability,’’ the coach told FIFA.com.
“Now we have a battle-hardened team, not like the typical Guatemalan sides, which were more about technique than fighting spirit. That’s helped us get good results.