Mismatches take gloss off UEFA's first week of football
World champions Germany visit neighbours Poland on Saturday in arguably the top clash of the six days.
BERNE - Europe is preparing for UEFA's first full-blown "week of football" as the marathon Euro 2016 qualifying competition gets into full swing - although it promises to be a distinctly underwhelming experience.
UEFA has heralded the new setup as "great news for football fans" but there is risk that the six solid days of international football could end up making it like background music in a shopping centre, always being played somewhere but with nobody really paying much attention.
Albania, who kicked off with a 1-0 win in Portugal, will try to pull off two more surprises when they host Denmark and visit Serbia.
Portugal themselves will start life under new coach Fernando Santos, although he will not be on the touchline for Tuesday's visit to Denmark as he starts an eight-game ban.
Santos, who led Greece to the round-of-16 at the World Cup, has replaced Paulo Bento, who left by mutual consent following the Albania debacle.
World champions Germany visit neighbours Poland on Saturday in arguably the top clash of the six days, while neighbours Romania and Hungary, who met in the World Cup qualifiers, do battle again in Bucharest on the same day.
Apart from that, there is precious little to get excited about in the 52 games which feature the usual mismatches, such as England-San Marino on Thursday, Belgium-Andorra on Friday, Luxemburg-Spain on Sunday and Malta-Italy on Monday. Only one match, Bosnia-Belgium on Monday, features two teams who were both at the World Cup in Brazil.
International matches have traditionally been concentrated into one or two days per month, creating a certain sense of occasion and anticipation, although that has gradually diminished over the years due to the sheer quantity of games played.
For the Euro 2016 qualifiers, however, UEFA had decided to spread the games evenly over six nights between Thursday and Tuesday. There was a small taste of what was to come in September when there were three days of action, but this will be the first full week.
UEFA has arranged it so that matches in Groups C, E and G are played on Thursday and Sunday, matches in Groups A, B and H on Friday and Monday and Groups D, F and I on Saturday and Tuesday.
The excitement has been further diminished because the top two in each of the nine groups, plus the best third-placed team, qualify directly for Euro 2016 and the other eight third-placed sides go into a playoff round, which may provide the only real excitement of the competition.
Of the top teams, defending champions Spain have a moderately tricky trip to Slovakia on Thursday in Group C, then visit Luxembourg 72 hours later.
Italy, who have made a promising start under new coach Antonio Conte, and with playmaker Andrea Pirlo returning from his short-lived international retirement, are at home to Azerbaijan on Friday and then travel to Malta on Monday
Germany follow Saturday's trip to Poland with a straightforward-looking home game against Ireland on Tuesday.
Guus Hiddink, who began his second stint in charge of World Cup semi-finalists the Netherlands with a friendly defeat to Italy and qualifying loss to the Czech Republic, should get his first win at home to Kazakhstan on Friday in Group A before heading to Iceland on Monday.