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Spain, France maintain focus before showdown

Updated: 2013-03-22 07:28
By Agence France-Presse in Paris ( China Daily)

 Spain, France maintain focus before showdown

French forward Franck Ribery reacts during a training session in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, near Paris, on Wednesday, two days ahead of a World Cup 2014 qualifying match against Georgia to be held at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris. Franck Fife / Agence France-Presse

Serbs and Croats to meet on pitch for first time since the Balkan War

With just over a year to go until the World Cup begins, some of Europe's leading nations are hoping to take a major step toward sealing their places in the finals in Brazil in a busy week of qualifying.

The outstanding game of the month is the clash between France and reigning European and world champion Spain in Paris next Tuesday, with both sides tied on seven points at the top of Group I.

But both countries must first see off unfancied opposition on Friday evening, as Spain entertains Finland in the northern city of Gijon while France hosts Georgia.

Vicente del Bosque's Spain side must do without captain Iker Casillas and Barcelona skipper Carles Puyol as both recover from injury, and Xavi Hernandez is also struggling for fitness.

Nevertheless, it should still see off the challenge of a Finnish side that currently props up Group I.

"We are all aware that both matches against Finland and France will be finals for us," said Chelsea and Spain winger Juan Mata.

"It would be an error for us to think about France because we have to win the first match."

Spain, France maintain focus before showdown

His thoughts echoed those of France coach Didier Deschamps, whose side plays its first competitive match since a creditable 1-1 draw in Madrid in October.

"In our qualifying campaign, for the match against Spain to mean anything, we need first of all to win against Georgia," he said last week, trying to focus his team's attention on the task at hand.

Elsewhere, Germany will be hoping to maintain its formidable record in qualifying when it makes the long trip to Kazakhstan in Group C.

Joachim Loew's side plays the former Soviet republic twice in the next week, with the match in Astana being followed by another meeting in Nuremberg on Tuesday.

Germany is expected to win both games, and the group, comfortably, but will be taking nothing for granted after drawing 4-4 with Sweden in its last qualifier in October.

Its two principal challengers in the section meet each other on Friday, with second-place Sweden hosting the Republic of Ireland at the Friends Arena, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic memorably scored all four goals as the Swedes beat England 4-2 in a friendly last November.

Fabio Capello's Russia will look to make it five wins from five games when it takes on Northern Ireland in Belfast in Group F, and the Netherlands will be aiming to maintain its perfect record in Group D when it hosts Estonia on Friday.

But perhaps the most intriguing - and certainly the most explosive - fixture will be in Group A in Zagreb, where rivals Croatia and Serbia meet for the first time since the Balkan War of two decades ago.

"It is football and not war that awaits us in Zagreb," said Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, but tensions will still run high in a clash that carries much wider significance to the people of both countries.

In purely soccer terms, the match is crucial in Group A, with Croatia second, six points ahead of the Serbs.

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