Spain go into their final two World Cup qualifiers requiring four points at home to Belarus and Georgia to book their ticket to Brazil next year. Both teams should on paper provide easy pickings for Vicente del Bosque’s men. Roberto Soldado scored the winner four minutes from time when La Roja overcame Georgia 1-0 in Tbilisi last September, while Belarus offered little resistance as Pedro Rodriguez hit a hat-trick in a 4-0 win in Minsk a month later.
However, Del Bosque will not have forgotten how, despite dominating against Finland in Gijon in March, his men failed either to hold or build on a one-goal lead against opponents who offered virtually nothing. Punished with an equaliser 11 minutes from time, the World Champions dropped two points on a night that will return to haunt them should the unthinkable happen against Belarus or Georgia.
Del Bosque has made a number of changes to his squad, some by choice and others forced by injury. With Jordi Alba out of action, Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno receives a first call-up and Juanfran is recalled. The right-back was one of four Atletico Madrid players included in the squad though one, David Villa, has withdrawn to be replaced by Michu, the Swansea man getting the nod ahead of Roberto Soldado and Fernando Llorente.
Despite injuries making some decisions for him, the Coach has insisted that the inclusion of young players such as Moreno, Koke and Isco is part of a strategy of bringing inexperienced players in to freshen up his squad. All are in good form, but whether Del Bosque would be employing a similar strategy against tougher opposition is moot.
Spain’s engine room is where so many of their wins have originated and Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Isco, David Silva and Juan Mata are all in contention for a midfield berth. If Spain dominate possession and press their opponents relentlessly, it is difficult to see either Belarus or Georgia being adequately equipped to deal with such a high degree of technical skill.
Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are likely to line up in defence for the first game against Belarus in Palma de Mallorca on Friday, with Nacho Monreal being handed a start ahead of the less experienced alternatives. The most difficult decision for Del Bosque, however, could be how he shapes his forward line.
If the Coach opts to play an orthodox striker, he must choose between handing Alvaro Negredo an 18th cap or giving Michu a first international start. His other option may be to operate with Cesc Fabregas in a false 9 role with two out of Pedro, Jesus Navas, David Silva and Mata playing alongside him. It is a tactic that worked spectacularly for Del Bosque in Minsk and one he may be tempted to reprise.
Victory on Friday will leave Spain needing only a point at Albacete next Tuesday, with qualification condemning France to the play-offs. Whatever line-up, formation and tactics he deploys, all eyes will be on La Roja to steer a safe course to Brazil.