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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Injury-Hit Germany Begins Cup March

LONDON -- European champions Germany begin what will be a long journey to the 1998 World Cup finals in France with a tricky first qualifier away to Armenia on Wednesday.

The Germans, playing their first competitive match since the final of Euro 96 on June 30, will be without several key players from their successful summer campaign, including Borussia Dortmund libero Matthias Sammer and Bayern Munich defender Thomas Helmer.

And coach Berti Vogts was forced to re-arrange his defense for the Group 9 match again Monday when Bayern's wing-back Christian Ziege and defensive midfielder Thomas Strunz also pulled out of the trip because of knee and back injuries.

Ukraine, who surprisingly beat Portugal 3-2 on Saturday, lead Group 9 with a maximum haul of six points, while Armenia have drawn their opening two matches against Portugal and Northern Ireland.

The Czech Republic, who lost to Germany in the Euro 96 final, play their second match in Group 6 following their 6-0 opening victory over Malta.

Spain beat the Faroe Islands 6-2 in their opening game and both teams will be looking to maintain their unbeaten starts.

For the Czechs, like the Germans, it will be the first big test for the team since Euro 96 and coach Dusan Uhrin is looking for the same cohesive play that made his team the surprise package of the tournament in England.

Manchester United midfielder Karel Poborsky summed up the Czechs' attitude toward Spain.

"They're explosive and technically very sound. And it's made all the more important because a loss will make it a difficult trip for either side," Poborsky said.

England, bidding to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1990, face their old rivals Poland at Wembley in a Group 2 match which is the latest in an astonishing sequence between the two countries.

They have met in the qualifying rounds of the 1974, 1990 and 1994 World Cups, the qualifying rounds of the 1992 European championship and the finals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, but Poland have not beaten England since a 2-0 win in Chorzow eight matches and 23 years ago.

A sell-out crowd of 76,000 is expected at Wembley on Wednesday for new England coach Glenn Hoddle's first home match.

Another important match in Group 2 sees Italy face Georgia in Perugia following their disappointing performance in beating Moldova 3-1 on Saturday. Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi is likely to return to his favored 4-4-2 line-up for the match because he is under pressure to produce a more convincing performance in his first home game since June's European championship failure.

Sacchi intends to abandon the three-man attack of Fabrizio Ravanelli, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Enrico Chiesa used initially against Moldova, bringing in Juventus midfielder Angelo Di Livio, impressive as a second-half substitute against Moldova.

Russian coach Boris Ignatiev says Israeli football has learned a lot from former Soviet exiles and poses a real threat to the Group 5 favorites in Wednesday's World Cup qualifier in Tel Aviv.

Russia, keen to forget a dismal time at the European Championships in England, will field a side heavy with Spanish league experience against an Israeli team in buoyant mood after last month's 2-1 home win over Euro 96 finalists Bulgaria.

"This game will likely be the key to our year," Ignatiev said. "If we win, we'll not only open up a lead but have a psychological advantage over our main rivals, Israel and Bulgaria."

All three scorers in September's 4-0 home win over Cyprus -- Sporting Gijon's Yuri Nikiforov, Bologna's Igor Kolyvanov and Vladimir Beschastnykh of Racing Santander -- should start.

"There's been a fair number of players from the former Soviet Union in Israel recently," Ignatiev said.

"Toughness, discipline, a good training set-up, organization on the pitch, the right tactics -- that's all the influence of our exports."