Germany eager to start afresh

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The Independent Online

The European race to secure a place at the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea starts in earnest this weekend, with 23 qualifiers around the continent.

The European race to secure a place at the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea starts in earnest this weekend, with 23 qualifiers around the continent.

Estonia stole a march on all the big countries by scoring the first goal and picking up the first points of the campaign when they beat Andorra 1-0 in the only European qualifier played so far, on 16 August. But now the spotlight switches to the likes of Germany, Italy and Spain as the major powers flex their muscles at the start of a relentless campaign which will last 15 months.

Germany kick off their campaign against Greece in Hamburg today, with their new coach, Rudi Völler, seeing the match as a chance to close the chapter on Germany's poor performance at Euro 2000.

Germany, already sure of their place in the World Cup after next as 2006 hosts, beat Spain 4-1 in a friendly last month but Völler insists that match was an irrelevance. "The game against Spain was of little significance and the players know that," he said.

Germany's Oliver Bierhoff, who has only just resumed training after a long injury break, should start on the bench. The Milan striker will play from the kick-off only if Bayern Munich's Carsten Jancker has not fully recovered from a calf muscle strain he sustained in training.

Greece, who failed to reach the last World Cup finals in France or Euro 2000, have much to prove too but will do well to escape with even a point against the Germans.

Italy, beaten by France in the final of Euro 2000, travel to Budapest, where they face Hungary in their opening Group Eight game tomorrow.

The new Italy coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, is expected to move Roma's Francesco Totti into his preferred role behind the front two, rather than play him in the strikers' role he was given by the previous coach, Dino Zoff. Filippo Inzaghi will start up front alongside Alessandro Del Piero or Marco Delvecchio.

Spain make the tricky trip to Sarajevo for their Group Seven qualifier against Bosnia today. The Spaniards have been hit by an injury to Josep Guardiola, so Valencia's Gaizka Mendieta is likely to anchor the midfield.

After Cesar's disappointing display in goal against Germany, Iker Casillas, the 19-year-old from Real Madrid, has been called up and is likely to win his first competitive cap after spending Euro 2000 on the Spanish bench.

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