Spain and France go into Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier in Madrid in very different form and with little margin for error in Group I, from which only the winner is guaranteed a place in Brazil in 2014.
The Spanish, current world and European champions, remain supremely confident after a 4-0 win in Belarus on Friday built around a Pedro Rodriguez hat-trick, while France crashed on the same evening to a 1-0 friendly defeat at home to Japan.
The clash comes less than four months since La Roja comfortably beat France 2-0 courtesy of a Xabi Alonso double in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012.
It has been business as usual for the Spanish since then.
Two victories have seen them move to the top of the group on goal difference over Tuesday’s visitors, making it an incredible run of 24 consecutive wins in qualifying matches that stretches back to 2007.
Meanwhile, Didier Deschamps has taken over the reins of the French squad from Laurent Blanc and started a rebuilding program that has seen Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Yann M’Vila cast into the cold following internal squabbles at the Euro.
For Spain, Vicente del Bosque rested Andres Iniesta against Belarus with the France game in mind, and the Barcelona midfielder is expected to start on Tuesday.
What will be intriguing in Del Bosque’s starting line up is his deployment of attacking players.
Against Belarus he again started without a recognized striker, a tactic first used at the Euro, with Cesc Fabregas deployed as a ‘false nine’ at the point of the attack.
Fabregas also started the last encounter with the French as Spain’s most advanced player. It was a game the Spanish controlled from start to finish, and he may be asked to take up the same role again.
If that is the case, it will mean there will be no sentimental start for Fernando Torres at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderon stadium, where he started his career.
“It’s a special place for me and if I do play, it’ll be for the first time since I left a long time ago, which motivates me more than ever,” the Chelsea striker said.
On their way to victory ar the Euro, La Roja only conceded one goal, and since Del Bosque has taken charge, their possession play has seen their defence beaten only 18 times in 38 official matches.
Without the injured Barcelona centre-back pairing of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, Del Bosque is expected to rely on Sergio Busquets and Sergio Ramos, who both started in Belarus.
Raul Albiol is on standby if Ramos does not recover in time from a muscle problem.
The former Sevilla man did not train on Sunday and his Real Madrid understudy, who replaced him for the final 20 minutes against Belarus, would be the obvious candidate to replace him.
France will be content with a point in Madrid, ahead of the return game in March, and Deschamps acknowledged as much in an interview with Spanish daily Marca.
“Spain are frightening. At the moment we are not comparable at all with them and nobody should be bothered by that (statement), because it’s true,” he said.
“Spain is the model that we all want to be, or try to copy. That does not mean we are going there to lose. We know what we have to do.”
Patrice Evra and Yohan Cabaye, who both missed the Japan game, should both be available for France after shrugging off injuries.
Deschamps will be concerned by the international form of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, who has failed to score in his last eight games for his country.
While he has also started the season slowly in La Liga, the ex-Lyon star has grabbed two goals in two outings in the Champions League, and a big game from him in his adopted city could be key to France’s chances of success.
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