|By PAUL GOUGH
The big guns of Europe are expected to have few problems when they take their first step on the long road to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil on Friday.
Europe is the last confederation to begin their qualifying matches for the World Cup - following the recent European Championships, won by Spain - with 22 matches to take place on Friday across the nine groups.
The nine group winners will automatically qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with the eight best performed runners-up to then take part in four home-and-away play-off matches at the end of qualifying to decide which other four teams from Europe make it.
Group A should be fought out between Croatia and Serbia, with Belgium, Scotland and Wales all fighting for chances of finishing second, while Group B should see Italy dominate with Denmark and the Czech Republic likely to fight it out for a play-off berth.
In Group C, perennial World Cup contenders Germany should easily qualify, with the second spot likely to be come from either Sweden or Ireland.
Meanwhile, in Group D, the highly-rated Netherlands appear to have landed in a soft group, with second spot a raffle between Turkey, Hungary, Romania and Estonia.
Group E looks the weakest of all the nine groups, with the top two spots likely to be fought out between Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland, while in Group F Portugal and Russia are likely to dominate.
Then, in Group G, it is Greece and Slovakia who are the favourites while in Group H England have been drawn alongside recent Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland and Ukraine as well as Montenegro, Moldova and San Marino.
And in the final group - Group I - which is the only one to contain just five teams instead of six, big guns Spain and France will fight it out for the right to finish top of the group and avoid having to go through the play-offs in order to reach Brazil.
Spain have just become the first nation ever to win three major tournaments in a row after their success at Euro 2012, to go with their triumphs at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and they remain clearly the benchmark team in world football.
However, Spain are not playing in the opening round of matches, leaving Germany as the shortest-priced favourite among a host of what appear lop-sided matches on paper on Friday.
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Germany are $1.01 favourites at Luxbet to beat the tiny Faroe Islands at $81, and expect the three time World Cup winners to win in a canter.
Other hot favourites that should win their opening qualifiers include Russia at $1.21 at Luxbet at home to Northern Ireland at $11.50, Bosnia at $1.17 away to tiny Liechtenstein at $13.50, Croatia at $1.24 at home to Macedonia at $10.50 and England at $1.27 away to Moldova at $10.
However, some of the favourites are facing more testing matches.
Belgium, with their host of English Premier League stars - including Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Manchester City's Vincent Kompany, Everton's Marouanne Fellaini, Arsenal's Thomas Vermalenen and Spurs pair Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembele - open their campaign in Wales and should win at $1.81, but the hosts are value at $4 as is the draw at $3.35.
And the draw in that game is outstanding value at $3.15, considering Norway and Iceland drew both their matches when also opposed in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup - although the former won both matches when the teams were also paired in qualifying for Euro 2012.