In undoubtedly the biggest match of the week, Spain play France in Paris on Tuesday. Anything less than a win could see the world and European champions face a playoff in order to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
For most national teams, sitting comfortably second in a World Cup qualifying group, after obtaining eight points from four games, would not be considered a crisis. However, after spending the last five years sweeping all before them to win the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 European Championships, consecutive 1-1 draws at home to France and Finland will be a big cause for concern for Spain.
If Brazil 2014 does mark the end of Spain’s undisputed reign as the best team in the world, an October night at Atletico Madrid’s Estadio Vicente Calderon last year could be seen as the turning point.
At home to France, and aiming for their 25th consecutive win in World Cup Qualifying matches, Spain found themselves in a very familiar situation. They were 1-0 up, had enjoyed 66 per cent possession and the allotted three minutes added time were up. All they needed to do was keep possession until the final whistle, as they normally do so comfortably. On this occasion however, Juanfran inexplicably lost the ball in midfield, France broke and Franck Ribery crossed for Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud to head home the equaliser, making a missed penalty from Cesc Fabregas in the first half look all the more costly.
The result against France would have been seen as just a blip for a Spain side that were still heavy favourites to win a group that also contains Belarus, Georgia and Finland. However, another 1-1 draw against a Finland side that had just 18 per cent possession and one shot in their match in Gijon last Friday will have some worried.
Vicente Del Bosque’s side now trail France by two points ahead of their meeting in Paris on Tuesday, which could well be the group decider. A French win will all but consign Spain to a playoff in November, and even a draw would makeLes Bleus favourites to get the automatic place in Brazil.
Realistically, despite the blip in the last two games, it still seems pretty safe to expect that Spain will be in Brazil next year, whether they qualify automatically or through the playoffs. After all, they haven’t lost a qualifying match for any tournament since a 2-0 defeat in Sweden in 2006. However, all other teams with ambitions of lifting the World Cup at the Maracana next July will take encouragement, as Spain lose their aura of invincibility.