LONDON — France, Italy and England begin the rebuilding process after disappointing World Cup campaigns when they play their first European Championship qualifying matches on Friday.
France, under new coach Laurent Blanc, plays in front of its fans for the first time since the squad's World Cup training strike shocked the nation when it takes on Belarus at the Stade de France in Group D.
Italy, also starting a new chapter two months after finishing last in its World Cup group, is at Estonia in Group C. The Azzurri are looking for their first win in 2010.
England, which struggled to qualify from its group in South Africa before being humiliated by Germany in the second round, has a host of injury problems to contend with heading into its opening Group G qualifier, against Bulgaria at Wembley.
Aside from a win, winning back the belief of French fans, who have been particularly hard to please in recent years, is Blanc's priority in his first competitive game as France coach.
"I hope that we can get the crowd behind us during the game. I don't know if we'll succeed, but I hope so," the former France center back said.
Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery and Chelsea forward Nicolas Anelka are all missing after being suspended by the French Football Federation for their part in France's World Cup fiasco. Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema is also a doubt after hurting an ankle in training.
Blanc is yet to decide on his new captain, but Chelsea winger Florent Malouda or Alou Diarra are favorites to take the armband.
Italy followed up its dismal World Cup by losing 1-0 to Ivory Coast in a friendly in England last month. It was Cesare Prandelli's first match in charge and the former Fiorentina coach is not expecting anything easy against Estonia, which opened its group campaign last month with a 2-1 win over the Faeroe Islands.
"It's not going to be a walk in the park against Estonia," Prandelli said. "They're a decent squad and we've got to be attentive. The idea of not having won in a year could weigh down the squad."
Holding midfielder Andrea Pirlo is back after missing most of the World Cup with a left calf injury and will wear the captain's armband while goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon continues his recovery from back surgery. Strikers Amauri and Mario Balotelli are also out injured.
Unlike France and Italy, England at least got out of its group in the World Cup but that did not spare manager Fabio Capello being heavily criticized for his tactics and squad selection.
Capello was not helped either by the poor form of some of his key players in South Africa, notably Wayne Rooney. But the Manchester United striker, who scored his first goal since March in his team's Premier League victory over West Ham last weekend, has looked sharp in England training and should spearhead Capello's lineup.
"He has improved a lot. It is a good moment for him and I think he will be OK for the game against Bulgaria," Capello said of Rooney.
With Rio Ferdinand still out injured, England will again be captained by midfielder Steven Gerrard, who rescued Capello's team with two second-half goals in the 2-1 friendly win over Hungary in August.
England is without experienced Chelsea players John Terry and Frank Lampard through injury, while striker Peter Crouch has been ruled out with a back injury and West Bromwich goalkeeper Scott Carson has been released from the squad because of a family bereavement.
While the three fallen European giants look to get back to their best, Spain and the Netherlands will aim to maintain the form that took them to the World Cup final.
World champion Spain begins the defense of its European crown with a trip to Group I minnows Liechtenstein. Center back Carles Puyol is absent because of a left leg injury.
The Dutch, who will be captained by new skipper Mark van Bommel, also start off with what should be an easy away match, against San Marino in Group E.
World Cup semifinalist Germany plays Belgium away in Group A while Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz will be absent when his side hosts Cyprus in Group H.
Queiroz has been suspended for six months after he was ruled to have disrupted an anti-doping test ahead of the World Cup, and will be replaced temporarily in the dugout by assistant coach Agostinho Oliveira.