With Europe's heavyweight nations all on course for Euro 2012, build-up to this weekend's round of qualifiers has been dominated by talk of off-pitch personality clashes and player indiscipline.
England's game against old enemies Wales on Saturday will see John Terry restored to the captaincy after a year in the shadows, while France and Italy have also had to grapple with misbehaving players.
A 0-0 draw at home to surprise Group G leaders Montenegro in their previous outing saw England miss out on taking top spot in the group, but they will leapfrog the Montenegrins with victory in Cardiff.
Wales, bottom of the group after three straight defeats, have both Tottenham winger Gareth Bale and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey back from injury, but pre-game attention has focused almost exclusively on Terry.
The Chelsea centre-back had the captaincy taken from him last year following media revelations that he had an affair with the ex-girlfriend of former Chelsea and England team-mate Wayne Bridge.
Rio Ferdinand was the beneficiary, but with the Manchester United stalwart once again laid low by injury, coach Fabio Capello has elected to take the armband from him and hand it back to Terry.
Ferdinand was reportedly hurt by Capello's decision, but Terry was in fighting form when he came face to face with the England press pack.
"As I said to the manager at the time, I accepted their decision," he said.
"It doesn't mean to say I agreed with it, and I never will. That's me being very proud and having been honest with them.
"Over the last year I'd like to think I've personally kept my head down and done the right thing."
Italy, meanwhile, sit three points clear of Slovenia in Group C ahead of Friday's trip to the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, but they will be without Daniele de Rossi and Mario Balotelli due to on-pitch indiscretions.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli axed De Rossi after the Roma midfielder was given a three-match ban by UEFA for punching Shaktar Donetsk's Dario Srna during their recent Champions League clash.
Troublesome striker Balotelli was also overlooked, after a stroppy performance in Manchester City's recent League meeting with Dynamo Kiev culminated in a red card for an ugly chest-high foul on an opponent.
For France, the announcement of their squad for Friday's trip to Luxembourg marked the latest step in the long road to redemption after last year's World Cup fiasco.
Franck Ribery and Patrice Evra were recalled for the first time since being banned for their roles in the squad's training ground mutiny in South Africa, and Evra believes the time has come to drawn a line beneath what happened.
"I want to turn the page and be a solution, not a problem," said the Manchester United left-back this week.
"It's up to me to turn things around so that people can see me as someone who wants to invest himself in a much better future."
France lead Group D by a point from Belarus and are chasing a sixth straight victory under Laurent Blanc.
World and European champions Spain's progress has to date been similarly serene and they will take a 100 percent record into their Group I home game with the Czech Republic in Granada on Saturday.
Victory would send La Furia Roja six points clear at the summit, but coach Vicente del Bosque will have to do without Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas and Barcelona forward Pedro Rodriguez due to injury.
"We have two very important matches coming up and if we win them we will have one foot in the next Euro tournament," said striker David Villa, whose team travel to Lithuania next Tuesday.
Elsewhere, World Cup semi-finalists Germany are bidding for a fifth straight win against Group A whipping boys Kazakhstan, while the Netherlands will also take a perfect record into their Group E trip to Hungary.