Pressure on Spain as it faces France in World Cup qualifying
Spain will edge closer to an unexpected playoff place if it fails to beat France in their World Cup qualifier on Tuesday.
The Spanish surprisingly drew 1-1 against Finland on Friday while the French beat Georgia 3-1, giving them the initiative in Group I and a chance to open up a five-point lead if they win at Stade de France.
Even a draw suits France, as Spain would then only have three matches left to close the gap.
"The unity we have within this squad is our strength and we have to preserve that whatever happens,'' Spain defender Sergio Ramos said Monday through an interpreter. "We will stick to our way of playing. We're not going to change now.''
When Spain won its third straight major title at last year's European Championship, it seemed inconceivable that it would then struggle to qualify automatically for the World Cup.
Following a run of 24 straight wins in qualifying games dating back to 2007, a mini-slump of two consecutive draws has led to early whispers that its dominant grip on world football may finally be loosening.
"We have a lot of faith in our ability,'' Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "We knew that France would be our toughest opponent.''
France grabbed a last-gasp equalizer away to Spain in October, and even dominated in the second half - forcing the Spanish into some panicky defending - but coach Didier Deschamps does not see this is a sign of a weakening team.
He thinks the draw against Finland had more to do with poor finishing than how the visitors played - even though Spain again surrendered an equalizer by defending lazily.
"It didn't stop Spain creating a load of chances. They just didn't take them,'' Deschamps said, adding that he is not going to set his team up to play for a draw.
"Spain will come here with the same intentions they had before the Finland game. Whether they're playing at home or away they try and control the game,'' he said. "Thinking only about defending is not the right approach.''
There are signs of weakness in Spain's defense.
The way it conceded the equalizer to Finland led to a heated row between Real Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa and Gerard Pique of Barcelona as club tensions resurfaced. Pique reproached Arbeloa for not closing down his right flank and allowing the cross from which Teemu Pukki scored. Arbeloa shouted back at Pique, who then told him to shut up.
Spain has failed to protect a 1-0 home lead in its past two qualifiers, suggesting it tires late on.
"These are two different games. France attacked in the second half so it was perhaps more a question of fatigue and we were more open,'' Del Bosque said. "With Finland it wasn't a case of fatigue but more the fact that we couldn't score.''
While Spain needs to get its ruthlessness back, France has backed struggling striker Karim Benzema, who has not scored in his 11 games for France and managed only three in his past 23.
Benzema has been France's No. 1 striker since 2010 but his slump has led to calls in some sections of the French media to drop him and start with Olivier Giroud in attack. Giroud scored against Georgia and Spain with headers. But Deschamps swatted away any suggestions that he will bench Benzema.
"Doubting Benzema's quality is folly. Whether it's for Real Madrid or France he's an exceptional player,'' club teammate Ramos said. "I will have to concentrate all the time because if you forget him for one second it's a goal.''
Thankfully for Deschamps, other sectors of the French attack are in full flow, with left winger Franck Ribery and attacking midfielder Mathieu Valbuena in excellent form - particularly Valbuena, who scored a great goal and created the other two against Georgia.
"France is a physical team,'' del Bosque said. "But they have players who are technical and quick, like Ribery, Valbuena and (Yohan) Cabaye.''
Considering how Spain has conceded its last two goals in qualifying, Ribery - who set up Giroud's equalizer in Spain with a cross from the left - poses a major threat to Arbeloa.
Del Bosque, however, says he will not shift Ramos over to right back in Arbeloa's place.