Front runners tune up

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PARIS, March 2 – With 100 days to go until the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the favourites begin their final preparations in a series of friendly matches on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Pre-tournament form is a notoriously fickle indication of how a team will perform at the quadrennial football showpiece, but some of the sides bidding for glory are already beset by problems and controversies.

England’s chances of a first World Cup success since 1966 were hyped to the hilt in the aftermath of their near-flawless qualifying campaign, but Fabio Capello’s side has since become tainted by scandal.

John Terry was stripped of the captaincy following allegations of an extra-marital affair with the ex-girlfriend of international colleague Wayne Bridge, who turned his back on the England set-up as a consequence.

First-choice defenders Glen Johnson, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole are all struggling for fitness, with Cole a doubt for the World Cup after breaking his ankle.

Capello, though, has sought to emphasise the importance of unity and has even stated his desire to include Bridge – the leading candidate to replace Cole at left-back – in his squad for the tournament.

"I respect Wayne Bridge’s decision, but we have three months to change his decision. I open the door to all the players and now the door is open for the future of Wayne Bridge," said Capello, whose side host Africa Cup of Nations champions Egypt on Wednesday.

France’s game with Spain at the Stade de France, meanwhile, opposes two teams with similarly high profiles but vastly different expectations.

After a distinctly under-par qualification campaign, France limped into the tournament in contentious fashion when Thierry Henry’s now infamous handball put paid to the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup dreams.

Coach Raymond Domenech has prevailed over four years of underachievement since defeat to Italy in the 2006 World Cup final but his successor will be named before the tournament, much to Domenech’s discontent.

"Everything that comes from outside can disrupt, undermine and create weaknesses that could prove harmful during a long competition," he said.

"For one match, no, but for one month, with substitutes who won’t play or who will only play a bit, it could be complicated and it could create tension."

European champions Spain, by contrast, approach the game in relative serenity.

The Euro 2008 winners won all 10 of their qualifying games and the principal task facing coach Vicente Del Bosque is one of dampening fervent expectations.

"We must be aware of who we are, not underestimate our opponents," he said.

"Thinking that we are the strongest is obviously stupid because we know that this competition demands concentration and humility if you are to win against any team."

Favourites Brazil, who tackle Ireland in London on Tuesday, must deal with the characteristic pressure that accompanies their participation in every major competition.

Coach Dunga has stamped his style on the team since he took over in 2007 and his counter-attacking system leaves no room for the flamboyant talents of Ronaldinho, who was once again overlooked for the game against Ireland.

"I guess it’s normal (for Ronaldinho’s absence to cause controversy) because the players who are absent are always the best and everyone wants to talk about who is not part of the national team," Dunga said.

Argentina coach Diego Maradona claims to have already informed "50 percent" of the players who will make up his 23-man squad for the World Cup, where Argentine hopes of a third trophy will rest heavily on the shoulders of European Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi.

The Albicelesti on Wednesday confront Germany, whose own preparations have been dogged by a dispute between coach Joachim Loew and the country’s football federation over an extension to his contract.

Defending champions Italy face Cameroon in Monaco, with Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi having claimed last month that he already knows 17 of the 23 players he will take to South Africa.

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