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Spain is used to winning; this time, it almost has to

Updated: 2013-03-26 08:02
By Agence France-Presse in Madrid ( China Daily)

Spain is used to winning; this time, it almost has to

Draw with Finland finds World Cup champs in crucial game with France

There was a time when Spain as world champion wouldn't have the obligation of qualifying for the right to defend its crown at the 2014 World Cup.

However since FIFA revoked the automatic place for holder after the 2002 World Cup, that decision could now have severe repercussions for Vicente Del Bosque's men as they face France on Tuesday, for what is shaping up as a group decider and the lone automatic spot for next year's finals in Brazil.

Friday's shock 1-1 draw at home to Finland has left Spain trailing the 1998 champion by two points at the top of Group I with just three matches against Belarus, Georgia and Finland to come after the Stade de France showdown.

Anything but victory would see the reigning champion dependent on an unexpected slip-up by the French to avoid the embarrassment of a potentially awkward playoff in November.

The local reaction to the Finland result has been mixed. On the one hand it seems crazy to doubt a side that has won three major tournaments in a row.

However, there are some legitimate concerns, the most pressing of which remains an inability to turn huge percentages of possession into goals.

For all their attacking talent, Spain's achievements over the past five years have largely been based on not conceding goals.

Del Bosque admitted last week that deciding who plays up front was the most unsettling part of picking his side.

However, the former Real Madrid boss didn't seem to do himself any favors against Finland, by persisting with Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas as a central striker with club teammate David Villa playing on the left.

Spain is used to winning; this time, it almost has to

Del Bosque's use of a Fabregas - who normally plays behind the strikers - during Euro 2012 was heavily analyzed, but at the time he could argue that Villa's absence left him without an in-form striker.

Now with Spain's all-time leading goalscorer back fit and firing in recent weeks at club level, it seems logical that he should return to playing through the middle in Paris.

Friday's result also came at an interesting point in Spain's transition from some of those that have won it all, to a new generation now burdened by massive expectations.

The quartet of Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Xabi Alonso all missed Friday's game through injury and although the latter two are likely to return in Paris, there are questions over their fitness.

Both have missed a significant number of games recently for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively and another grueling club season is unlikely to help recovery time for Brazil, assuming Spain eventually qualifies.

Spain's record is still magnificent and it remains unbeaten in 24 competitive games, going back to a 1-0 defeat against Switzerland during the group stages of the 2010 World Cup.

One of the team's strongest qualities has been its ability to bounce back from negative results.

Following the shock defeat against Switzerland, Del Bosque's troops reeled off six straight victories on the way to their first global title that culminated with victory over the Netherlands in Johannesburg.

Similarly, their defense of the European title in 2012 began with a nervy 1-1 draw against Italy before a confident march to the final and a 4-0 thrashing over the same opponents for their third straight major crown.

Spain and France last met at Euro 2012, when Spain easily beat Laurent Blanc's uninspired team 2-0 in the quarter-finals before beating Portugal in the last four.

(China Daily 03/26/2013 page22)

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