PARIS - With the dust having settled on a memorable Euro 2012, the old continent's attention now turns towards the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which begins in earnest on Friday.
The major nations, led by reigning world and European champions Spain and a Germany side supposedly about to hit their peak, are all expected to be at the finals two years from now, but none can take their place for granted. At least one major name always fails to qualify -- much-fancied Russia missed out on South Africa 2010 while, four years earlier, Greece were the European champions but still finished fourth in their qualifying group.
And the Netherlands failed to make it in 2002. The man who presided over that failure, Louis van Gaal, has just returned as coach of the Oranje after Bert van Marwijk stood down in the wake of a disastrous showing at Euro 2012.
Van Gaal's return to the helm began with a 4-2 friendly defeat to Belgium last month, and the Dutch kick-off their Group D campaign with a tricky home clash against Turkey. With only one automatic qualification slot available in each group, and the eight best runners-up advancing to play-offs, Van Gaal knows the margins between success and failure can be fine, but he is relishing the task.
"This is the challenge which I have been waiting for," he proclaimed after his appointment in July. New France coach Didier Deschamps will be well aware of the pitfalls that await him in Group I, a five-team section also containing Spain.
Les Bleus' first competitive fixture under Deschamps is against Finland in Helsinki. "The mission is a difficult one but the objective is exciting," said the man who lifted the World Cup as a player in 1998. "In a five-team group, it is vital that you take as many points as possible and I know full well that we cannot afford to drop many before we play Spain, who are, logically, the big favourites to win the group.
The two, who met in the quarter-finals at Euro 2012, with La Roja winning 2-0, clash in Spain in October, before the return at the Stade de France in March. Far from lacking in motivation after three consecutive major tournament triumphs, Spain, who kick-off their campaign in Georgia on September 11, could be even stronger thanks to the return after a broken leg of David Villa.
"Once he is fully fit he will be very important for us," said midfielder Xabi Alonso of Spain's all-time leading marksman, while coach Vicente Del Bosque describes Villa as "our most reputable goalscorer." Germany are looking to bounce back from the heartache of their Euro 2012 semi-final defeat to Italy, but anything less than first place in Group C for them would be a major surprise, even if they must come up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden, Ireland and Austria. "There was huge disappointment after the Euro exit, after the game against Italy. But our fans know that there is no guarantee to win a title," insisted Loew.
You can usually be guaranteed to see Germany qualify for major tournaments, though -- they have only ever lost twice in 74 World Cup qualifiers, and that formidable record is unlikely to be threatened when they entertain the Faroe Islands in Hanover on Friday.
Meanwhile, Italy are out to build on a run to the final of Euro 2012 that restored a nation's pride in the Azzurri. However, Cesare Prandelli's side will come up against Euro quarter-finalists the Czech Republic in Group B, as well as Denmark, and veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is wary of their threat. "On paper, we should be the favourites to win our group, but behind us there are three or four teams who are capable outsiders and we will need more than just commitment to make sure we beat them," he said.
The notoriously hard-to-please English media will closely scrutinise Roy Hodgson's performance in charge of the national team after he commendably took them to the last eight at Euro 2012 just weeks after being appointed.
Hodgson must successfully integrate young talent into his squad and make sure England negotiate Group H, which also contains Euro co-hosts Poland and Ukraine, as well as Montenegro, who gave them a scare in European Championship qualifying. Elsewhere, Portugal and Fabio Capello's Russia will go head-to-head in Group F, and this may be the time for a Bosnia-Herzegovina side led by Vedad Ibisevic and Edin Dzeko to make it to a major tournament after coming up just short more than once in recent years.
And, after a decade of failure, the time has surely come for Belgium -- blessed with talents such as Eden Hazard and Marouane Fellaini -- to make their return to the big time.

 World Cup 2014 European qualifying fixtures

Friday
Croatia    v    Macedonia
Wales    v    Belgium
Malta    v    Armenia
Bulgaria    v    Italy
Kazakhstan    v    Republic of Ireland
Germany    v    Faroe Islands
Estonia    v    Romania
Andorra    v    Hungary
Netherlands    v    Turkey
Slovenia    v    Switzerland
Albania    v     Cyprus
Iceland    v    Norway
Russia    v    Northern Ireland
Azerbaijan    v    Israel
Luxembourg    v    Portugal
Liechtenstein    v    Bosnia-Herzegovina
Lithuania    v    Slovakia
Latvia    v    Greece
Montenegro    v    Poland
Moldova    v    England
Georgia    v    Belarus
Finland    v    France
Saturday
Scotland    v    Serbia
Denmark    v    Czech Republic