The reigning World Cup champion no longer gets a free pass to the subsequent tournament, and Spain was done no favors when it was placed in the same qualification group as powerful France.
La Roja had to work for it, but Tuesday – the last day of group play -- they eased past Georgia, 2-0, to clinch the top spot in Group I and a trip to Brazil. France, 3-0 winners over visiting Finland, will head to next month’s UEFA playoffs.
The turning point came in March, when Spain defeated France, 1-0, on a goal by Pedro Rodríguez in Paris. The champs held serve after that and finished 6-0-2, three points above Les Bleus.
On Tuesday in Albacete, La Roja enjoyed its typically massive advantage in possession and took a 25th-minute lead on a goal from Álvaro Negredo. Pedro started the play with a chip to Andrés Iniesta on the left. The 2010 World Cup hero’s first-time cross was finished emphatically by Negredo at the near post.
Chelsea’s Juan Mata scored Spain’s second in the 61st after pouncing on a loose ball in the penalty area.
Spain’s attack hasn’t been that lethal during qualifying, but its opponents can’t score without the ball. La Roja had the best defensive record in Europe, yielding only 0.375 goals per game in the World Cup preliminaries.
At the Stade de France, the hosts got goals from Franck Ribéry (on a scorcher -- see below), Karim Benzema and Finland defender Joona Toivio, who deflected an Olivier Giroud header into his own net.
The win wasn’t enough to pass Spain, however, nor was it sufficient to earn a seed for next month’s two-leg playoff. And the French, who finished with the second-best mark among the group runners-up, aren’t happy about that.
Fédération Française de Football president Noël Le Graët was quoted saying that the FFF plans to ask FIFA to reconsider the decision to seed based upon the October ranking. He argued that since France played two fewer qualifiers then the other seven playoff teams, it was denied the chance to earn points toward its ranking.
France was seeded four years ago when it defeated Ireland at the same stage. This time, Les Bleus are slated to join Iceland, Romania and Sweden as the unseeded sides. They’ll be matched up against Croatia, Greece, Portugal and Ukraine. The playoff draw is Monday in Zurich.