Dinged up but still in pursuit of more space on the Group I table, Spain face a Finland side unbeaten in their last five matches on Friday night in a World Cup qualifier at Helsinki Olympic Stadium.
After a narrow 1-0 victory over second place France, Spain holds a slim one-point lead for first, while the Fins are five points back in third.
The two sides clashed to a stunning 1-1 result back in March, as Teemu Pukki equalized Sergio Ramos’s strike in the 79th minute. The second draw in qualifying for 2014 essentially wiped away their pivotal turn against the French, but Vicente Del Bosque’s side still controls their fate for Brazil.
Spain is heavily favored to win, even with the expected absences of defensive midfielders Sergio Busquets and Javi Martinez, midfielder Xabi Alonso, and Gerard Pique due to suspension. That has possibly opened up more time for Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas, who has helped the Catalans start their La Liga season undefeated with five assists in three matches. The 26-year-old has made 83 appearances for Spain since 2006, netting 13 goals.
Along with Celtic’s Pikku, No. 65-ranked Finland have midfielder Kasper Hamalainen, who has already tallied three goals for Lech Pozan in 20 appearances this season. The Fins are hoping to qualify for their first ever World Cup, but will miss Perparim Hetemaj due a suspension. The 26-year-old Chievo midfielder will be available against Georgia on Sept. 10.
Hamalainen is likely to come on as a substitute for Finland like he did in the 2-0 friendly victory against Slovenia last month.
There has been some controversy over who will mind Spain’s net, but Del Bosque’s choice appears to be down to team captain Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes, despite Casillas losing his starting spot to the latter at Real Madrid.
D: Pasanen, Arkivuo, Lamp, Moisander
M: Tainio, Eremenko, Riku Riski, Schuller
F: Ring, Pukki
D: Arbeloa, Ramos, Albiol, Alba
M: Garcia, Iniesta, Xavi, Navas
F: Fabregas, Negredo
Betting Odds: Spain is 1.5 goal favorites.
Over/Under: 2.5 goals.
Prediction: Spain 2-0 Finland
The match starts at 2:30 p.m. ET, and a free live online stream is available on ESPN3 or Watch ESPN here.