Powers can flex muscle at European 2016 qualifiers
Qualifying for the largest European Championship should be a cruise for the continent's heavyweights. For once, though, the weaker nations aren't just there to make up the numbers.
The Euros have been expanded from 16 to 24 teams for the 2016 tournament in France, with the top two countries from nine groups qualifying automatically along with the best third-place finisher. The other eight teams placing third will compete in the playoffs.
It means the so-called lesser nations have been given a rare chance to qualify for a major tournament, and should ensure group play maintains interest and excitement through to the final games.
Except, maybe, for the big teams, some heading into the first round of qualifiers after the demands of the World Cup.
Less than two months after winning the world title, Germany returns to competitive play after a 4-2 exhibition loss to Argentina in a rematch of the final. The Netherlands and Spain also lost exhibitions in midweek.
Some things to know about the start of qualifying for Euro 2016:
GERMANY'S WAKE-UP CALL
''A wake-up call'' was how former Germany defender Per Mertesacker described his country's defeat Argentina on Wednesday.
The Germans will be determined to atone with a convincing win over Scotland in Group D on Sunday on their first step to what they hope are back-to-back major titles.
''Our next target has to be European Championship final in Paris,'' Germany coach Joachim Loew said before the Argentina game.
Loew has to contend with several absentees, including injured midfielders Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Julian Draxler, and defender Mats Hummels.
Thomas Mueller was rested against Argentina and is likely to start in Dortmund.
Spain's dominance ended at the World Cup, and the rebuilding job under coach Vicente Del Bosque could take time.
Already down to No. 7 in the FIFA rankings, Spain played France on Thursday in its first match since the tournament in Brazil and lost 1-0 without even having a shot on target.
The golden era is over, with the likes of David Villa, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso retiring from internationals, and the Spanish could be paying for its over-reliance on core players during their run of three straight major titles.
Spain's first Euro 2016 qualifier is against Macedonia on Monday, with Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus and Luxembourg also in Group C.
Guus Hiddink's return as coach of the Netherlands has given him plenty to ponder leading to his team's first qualifier in Group A, against the Czech Republic in Prague.
Hiddink reverted to the traditional, attacking 4-3-3 formation on Thursday in an exhibition against Italy. His predecessor, Louis van Gaal, had largely abandoned it in favor of a five-man defense at the World Cup, where an inexperienced Dutch team finished an impressive third thanks in large part to its tight defending.
But within 10 minutes in Bari, Hiddink's team conceded two goals and had defender Bruno Martins Indi sent off. The Dutch managed to hold the score to a 2-0 loss, but Hiddink will want to shore up the defense against the Czechs.
''Great teams don't lose twice in a row,'' Hiddink said.
Antonio Conte has made a big impact since taking over from Cesare Prandelli as Italy coach.
Italy appeared much improved in its win over the Dutch and players gave a lot of the credit to Conte, a disciplinarian who guided Juventus to the last three Italian league titles.
''He's a hammer,'' said forward Ciro Immobile, who opened the scoring against the Dutch with his first international goal. ''He expects a lot from every player and that's the way it should be.''
Conte's approach is a drastic turnaround from the leniency afforded by Prandelli, who resigned after the Azzurri's first-round elimination from the World Cup.
''He could be the best coach around right now, as we saw at Juventus,'' midfielder Daniele De Rossi said.
Italy opens Group H qualifying on Tuesday at Norway, which was resolute in a 1-0 loss to England on Wednesday. Striker Mario Balotelli is suspended.
ENGLAND ON DEFENSIVE
England has been playing like a second-tier international team for a while. Now it has the mindset of one.
Speaking before his opening Group E qualifier at Switzerland on Monday, England coach Roy Hodgson said his team might play on the defensive - as Norway did at Wembley Stadium in a drab 1-0 exhibition win for the English on Wednesday.
''Switzerland will need to beat us, if anything, we might be Norway on Monday,'' Hodgson said. ''We might be pushed back and can't attack and dominate for long periods.''
England has lost star quality with the international retirements of Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Hodgson also is missing key players through injury, leaving him with an inexperienced squad.
Hodgson lost his cool after criticism of England's display against Norway, in which the team had only two shots on target. The pressure is on Hodgson after England won just one point in three matches at the World Cup.
Already qualified as the host nation, France will play exhibitions against the teams in Group I although the results won't count in the standings. The French face Serbia on Monday.
Tiny Gibraltar, newest member of UEFA, will play its first competitive international when it hosts Poland on Sunday.
As well as the expansion of the tournament, each round of qualifiers will be played over three days and at set times.