Spain's Alvaro Negredo laments the 1-1 draw against Finland in the Group I 2014 World Cup qualifying match on March 22, 2013. (AP Photo)
Paris: Spain will edge closer to an unexpected playoff place if they fail 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 only thing that changes is that a draw with France now isn't enough," midfielder Cesc Fabregas said. "But the idea was always to go to France aiming for a victory. We will be highly motivated and we will have to bring out the best in ourselves."
When Spain won their 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 their dominant grip on world football may finally be loosening.
France grabbed a last-gasp equaliser 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. "They are sure of their strength and their potential," he said. "They know exactly what to do when they have the ball in attack."
Friday's draw, Deschamps says, had more to do with poor finishing than the way Finland played - even though Spain again surrendered an equaliser 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. They will force us to defend anyway."
While Spain need to get their confidence back, France have backed struggling striker Karim Benzema, who has not scored in his past 11 games for France and has 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. "Can you see me saying that [he won't play?]," he said. "I believe in Karim."
Spain midfielder Santi Cazorla said it is "very unusual for [Benzema] to have gone so long without scoring, but hopefully his day won't come against us."
Thankfully for Deschamps, other sectors of the French attack are in full flow, with winger Franck Ribery and attacking midfielder Mathieu Valbuena in excellent form - particularly Valbuena, who scored a great goal against Georgia and created the other two. "We ask attacking players to be decisive and Valbuena is just that," Deschamps said. "He's full of confidence and it shows."
Deschamps has high praise for Giroud, too, but suggested he could be more useful using his aerial threat against a tiring defence. "He has that ability, and that's a weapon I can obviously use at any time," Deschamps said.
Cazorla knows all about Giroud, playing alongside him for Arsenal, and considers him to be an equal threat to Benzema. "They are very different. Olivier has killer instincts, a penalty box player," Cazorla said. "Karim is a playmaker, he enters in open play more. They are two great players."
Deschamps has no injury worries and all the yellow cards hanging over his players have cleared, meaning he can reinstate Laurent Koscielny to the centre of defence and Yohan Cabaye to the midfield.