James McCarthy will make his competitive debut for the Republic of Ireland today. The Wigan Athletic midfielder, who missed Euro 2012 for personal reasons, will start in Kazakhstan this afternoon as Ireland begin their qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup.
This is the start of a new era for Ireland following the international retirements of Damien Duff and Shay Given after a difficult Euro 2012 campaign. Keiren Westwood is the new goalkeeper while Simon Cox has been chosen ahead of popular Sunderland youngster James McClean on the wing. With no Darren Gibson or Keith Andrews, the gifted 21-year-old McCarthy (right) comes into midfield alongside Glenn Whelan.
Wales begin their attempt to emerge from a competitive Group A tonight as they host Belgium at the Cardiff City Stadium. Croatia, Serbia, Scotland and Macedonia are their other opponents but Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey (below) is relishing the challenge, especially given the rivalry with club-mate Thomas Vermaelen, the Belgium defender.
"He has been giving me a bit of banter over the last few weeks, which I won't repeat," Ramsey said of Vermaelen's taunts. "We all know the quality they have, a lot of their players have established themselves in the Premier League."
Ramsey is unbowed, though. "We are looking forward to it and we are confident in our own abilities, we have some very good players in our squad as well," he said. Wales will have to do without the injured Craig Bellamy, Neil Taylor, Joe Ledley and David Vaughan.
Northern Ireland have a hard start, in Moscow today. Russian striker Alexander Kerzhakov had reportedly joked that he had only just learned of Northern Ireland's existence, but new manager Michael O'Neill is unworried. "It doesn't really concern me to be honest," he said. "Our focus is with our own players. The opinions of the opposition you can't change ."
Scotland do not start until tomorrow, when they host Serbia at Hampden Park.