By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Few had expected this. Spain sailed through qualification for the last World Cup with 10 wins out of 10 and added eight from eight en route to Euro 2012. But back-to-back draws in their current campaign against France and Finland have left la Roja in second spot in Group I, needing to beat les Bleus away from home to regain control of their own destiny on the road to Brazil 2014.
"We will always have Paris," was Marca's rallying cry at the weekend, as the newspaper recalled Spain's sporting successes in the French capital, including Tour de France wins from Miguel Indurain and Alberto Contador, Rafa Nadal's Roland Garros victories, Barcelona's Champions League crown in 2006 and Real Madrid's two triumphs in the European Cup in the City of Light. Indeed, as they step out onto a partisan Paris pitch on Tuesday, Vicente del Bosque's men can count on the support from all over Spain - but they will also have plenty of fans from all across Europe, too.
Many of Europe's elite teams are sweating on qualification for the World Cup and some, including Italy, Portugal, England, Sweden and Croatia, may find themselves scrapping for a place in Brazil via the play-offs. And none of them will want to face Spain. The team to beat over the last five years, as they have claimed tournament wins at Euro 2008, South Africa 2010 and Euro 2012, Spain suddenly are the side nobody will want to play - not with a place at the World Cup at stake.
The champions have conceded just twice in this qualifying campaign, but both of those goals have proved costly. France's late leveller in the teams' Madrid meeting in October lost la Roja two points in a 1-1 draw which should have been a win. And the same thing happened at home to Finland on Friday. Two goals which have cost Spain four points, and which mean the champions must beat France on Tuesday.
|GROUP I AS IT STANDS
Both strikes emanated from the right full-back position, with Juanfran guilty against France after losing possession carelessly deep into added time and Alvaro Arbeloa caught out in another counterattack versus Finland. That will be a concern for Vicente del Bosque, but perhaps even more worrying is Spain's inability to convert chances and put games out of their opponents' reach. Roberto Soldado's 86th-minute winner in Georgia spared Spanish blushes in the first round of matches, and even though they were back to their emphatic best in a 4-0 victory away to Belarus in their following fixture, the late goals let in versus both France and Finland have highlighted an old problem. Both goals could have been defended better, but the two strikes should have been nothing more than anecdotes or a mere consolation instead of embarrassing equalisers.
At Euro 2012, Spain's only two emphatic wins (both 4-0) came against Ireland in the group stages and Italy in the final, the former versus the competition's weakest team and the latter only one-sided following the dismissal of Thiago Motta. Likewise, in the 2010 World Cup, Del Bosque's side won six games in a row to take the trophy after their surprise loss to Switzerland, yet all of their last four fixtures ended in 1-0 wins and the team's only greater margin of victory was a 2-0 group success over humble Honduras.
With that in mind, Del Bosque needs to find solutions in both defence and attack for Tuesday's key clash, although he has already revealed he will stick with the usually reliable Arbeloa, with Xavi and Xabi Alonso set to return to help creativity in midfield and perhaps an opportunity for Isco to prove his worth at some stage.
|Arbeloa is very efficient and we are not going to start experimenting [now]. Whether people like him or not, he is always reliable.
- Del Bosque on Monday
A draw will see the standings in Group I remain as they are, with les Bleus in control of the sector but still facing tough trips to Belarus and Georgia. Defeat, meanwhile, would be nothing short of disastrous for Spain - and for one unlucky team in the play-offs.
On current form, few sides will want to face France in the play-offs either, yet given the choice out of the French and the Spanish, most if not all would rather meet the men in blue.
The scenario makes a mockery of the seeding system. How can France, World Cup finalists as recently as 2006, share the same sector with Spain while Group E is led by Switzerland, Albania and Iceland, and Group G is topped by Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece and Slovakia? It hardly seems fair.
A World Cup without the holders remains unthinkable, however, and Spain would be firm favourites to beat any team they would face in the play-offs. They will hope, however, that it won't come to that. And many of their rivals will be crossing their fingers that they can overcome Dider Deschamps' men on Tuesday, too, in order to avoid a potential play-off meeting later on. So as Paris backs les Bleus at the Stade de France in this Group I clash, much of the rest of Europe will be cheering on Spain tonight.
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