The moment the draw was made, the two meetings between Spain and France always looked like being decisive in determining which side would secure an automatic berth for the 2014 World Cup. With both teams having recorded two wins from two, nothing has yet altered that view as the two European powers get set for what Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has likened to a first-leg of a knockout tie.
If France are to avoid the potential drama of their place in Brazil being settled in a playoff then a result in Madrid’s Vicente Calderon on Tuesday may well be required. Yet no one connected with Les Bleus will be under any illusions as to the task that awaits them.
It is just four months since the two sides faced off in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012. Though the score read 2-0 to the eventual champions that night, the reality was that Spain’s dominance against an insipid France side was even greater.
Since then, France have changed coach once more, with Didier Deschamps replacing Laurent Blanc. The former Marseille boss has brought a greater emphasis on physicality, but his chief task may be to breed harmony between the players both on and off the pitch.
Results have been solid rather than spectacular so far; a 1-0 victory in Finland was followed up by a 3-1 win at home to Belarus. A 1-0- friendly defeat to Japan last Friday did little to boost confidence, though, ahead of the meeting with a team who have won their last three major tournaments.
While they have proved impregnable in the summer competitions—ever since France knocked them out in the 2006 World Cup—Spain’s record in qualifying is also fearsome. La Roja are undefeated in 24 qualifiers, while Iker Casillas has now gone an extraordinary 728 minutes without conceding a goal at international level.
That latter streak, in particular, may be tested strongly on Tuesday, however, with injuries to Barcelona central defensive pair Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique. Sergio Ramos lined up alongside regular midfielder Sergio Busquets in a 4-0 victory in Belarus on Friday, although there are now doubts too over the Real Madrid man after he was forced to miss training on Sunday. Having trained on Monday night, however, he is likely to start.
If Ramos is passed fit, he will come up against his club mate Karim Benzema, who has yet to fully replicate his club form for Real at international level.
D: Arbeloa, Ramos, Albiol, Alba
M: Xavi, Busquets, Alonso
F: Pedro, Fabregas, Iniesta
D: Debuchy, Rami, Koscielny, Evra
M: Matuidi, Cabaye, Capoue
F: Menez, Benzema, Ribery
Prediction: With France doubtless looking to keep things tight, much will depend on Yohan Cabaye to make good use of the ball and for Franck Ribery and Benzema to provide a consistent threat on the break against a weakened Spanish defense.
In truth, though, it is hard to see France ending either Spain’s or Casillas’ unbeaten streak. Spain could enjoy particular joy with last Friday’s hat-trick hero Pedro going up against the increasingly defensively suspect Patrice Evra.
Spain 2-0 France
Where to watch: The World Cup qualifier kicks off from the Vicente Calderon in Madrid at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN2, with a live stream available on ESPN3.