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World Cup teams mark 99 days to go with friendlies

By AP - Mar 03,2014 - Last updated at Mar 03,2014

LONDON — World Cup contenders will hope to find out this week if they are better prepared for the tournament than some of the Brazilian stadiums they will be playing in.

The 32 finalists will mark 99 days until the opening match in Brazil by playing friendlies on Wednesday, the last chance for many coaches to test players before naming their World Cup squads.

Eighteen of the qualified nations will face-off against each other, with the most eye-catching game seeing world champion Spain taking Italy. 

Diego Costa’s Spain debut

This is more than just a friendly for Diego Costa. It’s a chance for the Brazilian-born striker to make his long-awaited debut for Spain.

The naturalised Spanish citizen brings a more physical, tenacious forward to the squad, with coach Vicente del Bosque dropping Fernando Torres and David Villa, key players from successful World Cup and European Championship campaigns.

It’s not hard to see why. Diego Costa has 21 goals for Atletico Madrid this season — second only to Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo in Spain.

“He’s done enough to merit being here,” Spain defender Sergio Ramos said. “He can bring a lot of positive qualities.”

Diego Costa will collect make his first appearance on familiar territory: Atletico’s Vicente Calderon Stadium.

The focus is on the strike force for Italy, too.

Mario Balotelli is out injured and Daniele De Rossi was dropped for breaking Cesare Prandelli’s code of ethics while playing for Roma. 

So Torino forward Ciro Immobile has been called for up the first time after scoring 13 goals this season.

French redemption 

Behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa, third place in the Spanish league scoring chart is held by Antoine Griezmann with 15 goals. 

And the Real Sociedad forward could now make his France debut against the Netherlands.

Griezmann was previously banned from representing France until the end of 2013 for going to a nightclub in 2012 during the play-offs for the 2013 Under-21 European Championship.

New faces for Germany 

With several long-term injured players, including Sami Khedira and Ilkay Gundogan, Germany coach Joachim Loew is testing other options before the World Cup.

It was still a surprise move putting four newcomers in the squad to face Chile — especially Sampdoria defender Shkodran Mustafi. 

Although Mustafi has played for all German junior teams, his club football has been mainly abroad and he is hardly known in Germany.

Apart from the injured Thomas Mueller and Sven Bender, Loew also left out Mario Gomez, Mats Hummels, Marco Reus, Julian Draxler and Benedikt Hoewedes, who all only recently returned to action. 

Forward Max Kruse and goalkeeper Rene Adler have been in poor form and were also dropped.

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