[EURO 2012 QUALIFYING] Qualifying for the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine continues with the first of two double fixture dates this spring. The first begins Friday and Saturday with several top-of-the-standings clashes on the schedule. Italy has benched several stars for disciplinary reasons, while the Netherlands' injury list is growing. Spain's Xavi is set to earn his 100th cap, and John Terry returns as England captain. Here's a look at the key games, all available live to American viewers ...
SLOVENIA-ITALY (Friday, 2:30 pm ET, ESPN3.com).
Leader Italy carries a three-point over Slovenia into the Group C clash, but Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli has dropped Italy's best striker, the controversial Mario Balotelli, and its best midfielder, hard man Daniele De Rossi.
“Our ethical code goes on, at all costs,” Prandelli said after the 21-year-old Balotelli dug himself deeper in the dog house at Manchester City when he was red-carded for kicking a Dynamo Kiev player in the chest early in last Thursday's Europa League match and video caught De Rossi elbowing a Shakhtar Donetsk player during their Champions League match. (It didn't help that both their teams were unceremoniously dumped from the competition.)
Italy's frontline includes New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi, as well as Antonio Cassano and Alberto Gilardino.
HUNGARY-NETHERLANDS (Friday, 2:30 pm ET, ESPN3.com).
The Netherlands and Germany are the only teams with four wins in four games, but it faces a tough Group E test against much-improved Hungary at the Ferenc Szusza Stadium in Budapest.
The Oranje's injury list is growing, however. Midfielder Mark van Bommel pulled out with a thigh injury, joining goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, winger Arjen Robben and striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar (eight goals already in qualifying) on the sidelines. Veteran striker Ruud van Nistelrooy was among the Dutch players brought in at the last minute.
The Dutch will be familiar with Hungarian star Balazs Dzsudzsak. He plays for PSV and has attracted interest from all the big EPL clubs with his play this season.
SPAIN-CZECH REPUBLIC (Friday, 5 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN3.com).
Defending European champion Spain (three wins in three games) will look to extend its lead over the second-place Czech Republic with a win in Grenada.
Midfielder Xavi will earn his 100th cap, making him only the second Spanish field player after Raul to reach the century mark in appearances. At 31, he is not yet ready to retire. "I still have many more games," Xavi told the Spanish sports daily AS. "I'm very proud of trying to meet the 100 [mark] but I think I have many more [matches] left."
Spain won't be at full strength, however, Xavi's Barcelona teammates, Carles Puyol and Pedro, are both out, as it Cesc Fabregas.
WALES-ENGLAND (Saturday 11 am, ESPN2, ESPN3.com).
All the headlines concerned John Terry's reappointment as captain 13 months after being stripped of the position after reports he had an affair with then-England teammate Wayne Bridge's former girlfriend surfaced.
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand took over as captain but he's injured, so England coach Fabio Capello says he'll give Terry the armband against Wales. "I'm not going to be everybody's cup of tea as I've read and I've seen, but it was the manager's decision,'' Terry said. "Respect for the players around me and the manager has always been there.''
Capello could pair Wayne Rooney with Liverpool's Andy Carroll up front if Carroll passes a fitness test.
NORWAY-DENMARK (Saturday, 3 pm ET, ESPN3.com).
At the age of 68, Coach Egil Olsen has come out of retirement and led Norway to a perfect nine points after three games in Group H heading into the match with third-place Denmark at the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo. "This is a match that has captured the imagination in both countries," he said. "This game is of huge importance."
Olsen will be without giant striker John Carew, sidelined with a back problem, starting goalkeeper Jon Knudsen, and right back Tom Hogli.
The Danes got bad news of their own on Wednesday when striker Niklas Bendtner and defender Simon Kjaer limped out of training with ankle injuries.