It is rare that a side unbeaten in 22 competitive games and with a 100 per cent record in qualifying should come under pressure ahead of a home qualifier, but due to the quirk of being landed with the strongest second seed in the smallest World Cup qualifying group, that is exactly what faces Vicente del Bosque’s World champions when they host France this evening.
Both sides have claimed six points from six so far and with both likely to win all of their other four remaining qualifiers against Belarus, Georgia and Finland the game takes on an importance that even those between two heavyweights rarely do in qualifying.
And yet despite winning two of the last four World Cups and all three of the last European Championships between them, Spain and France arrive at the Vicente Calderon on Tuesday night at very different stages of their evolution.
Historically, Spain had struggled against their neighbours, failing to beat them at all in competitive internationals. That was until a humid night in Donetsk just four months ago when two goals from Xabi Alonso steered the soon to be re-crowned European champions towards the semi-finals.
Until their poor performance in the summer France had appeared to have been regaining some sort of direction under Laurent Blanc following Les Bleus’ debacle at the World Cup two years previously, but a 23-match unbeaten run was snapped by a costly defeat to Sweden in their final group game ensuring a meeting with the Spanish which was soon followed by a plane journey home.
Blanc’s contract wasn’t renewed as manager, being replaced instead by another hero of the 1998 World Cup winning side in Didier Deschamps, but even under a new regime a lesson could be learned from one of Spain’s greatest assets in recent years – consistency of selection.
Of the 11 Spaniards that took to the field in Donetsk, 10 will start this evening. France on the other hand could have as many as six new faces in the starting line-up.
Indeed Del Bosque may even have stuck with exactly the same side had it not been for Gerard Pique’s injury. As is the way in this Spanish team, though, his absence hardly weakens the side as it will mean Pedro retains his place after scoring a hat-trick in Belarus on Friday night. Andres Iniesta will move back towards his more comfortable position at the heart of the midfield and Sergio Busquets will take Pique’s role in the back four.
Which does, though, force Del Bosque to change from his loyal use of the doble pivote of Alonso and Busquets in front of the back four.The former Real Madrid boss has always staunchly rejected claims by many in the Spanish press that the use of two holding midfielders is overly negative with such an array of creative players left lying in reserve. Del Bosque can point to the fact that Spain’s two major championship victories under his tenure have been won on the back of clean sheets rather than barrel loads of goals, but that point is somewhat counter-intuitive as if there were a more forward thinking player in midfield it would stand to reason that more clear-cut chances would be created.
After being put on the back burner for most of the Euros, the doble pivote debate was reopened after Friday’s 4-0 demolition of Belarus with a midfield three of Alonso, Xavi and Santi Cazorla at the heart of everything. That performance and result was in stark contrast to the struggle Spain faced in defeating Georgia only 1-0 last month when both Busquets and Alonso started in midfield.
With victory now such an expected outcome anytime La Roja take to the pitch, ironically it could be another comfortable win that would see Del Bosque’s tactics come under scrutiny.