Reigning world champions Spain had been expected to stroll through Group I, but slipped up by drawing 1-1 with France in Madrid last October, a game which featured a missed Cesc Fabregas penalty and a shock injury- time equaliser from Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud.
The return clash at the Stade de France tomorrow now looks a direct head-to-head decider for whether Les Bleus or La Roja secure direct qualification for next year’s finals in Brazil.
Injury and form concerns cloud Del Bosque’s preparations. Xavi has been included in a 24-man squad despite the Barcelona playmaker reportedly played with an injection in a hamstring injury in Tuesday’s 4-0 Champions League win over AC Milan, and missing last night’s La Liga game with Rayo Vallecano. The veteran coach admitted at Friday’s squad announcement that Xavi is unlikely to play both games.
“He had a problem at the end of the game against Milan,” he said. “He called me, and said he had some discomfort, but that he wanted to come. If not for the first game, then for the second. He is an example, yet again.”
The 33-year-old Catalan’s example this week is extra important, given the broken hand which rules out captain and regular goalkeeper Iker Casillas and the knee injury which means inspirational centre-half Carles Puyol also misses both games.
“Puyol wanted to come, but he has some problems, he is not in his best condition,” Del Bosque said on Friday. Just hours later word leaked out of Barcelona that the Catalan centre-half was having a knee operation and faced at least a month on the sidelines, a period which includes both Barca’s Champions League quarter-final legs against Paris Saint-Germain.
Spain also have issues up front, where Euro 2012 golden boot winner Fernando Torres has now been left out of the last four squads. Barca’s David Villa looked sharp when scoring against Milan last week, but has lacked consistency recently. Villa’s clubmate Fabregas looks more likely to play up front in a ‘false nine’ position in Paris, even though he has lost his starting place at the Camp Nou recently.
“We do not see (Torres) at 100%,” Del Bosque said when asked about his attackers on Friday. “The inconsistency of our strikers is a worry. Cesc is one of Barcelona’s regulars, even if he did not play the other day.”
So things are not ideal for Del Bosque at the moment, but then they could be worse. Barca’s Victor Valdes is a more than able deputy for Casillas, while it looks time for Manchester United’s David De Gea to overtake Liverpool’s Pepe Reina and get a place on the bench. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have both had their issues at club level this season but they were paired together at centre-half during Euro 2012 when Spain conceded just one goal while winning the tournament. Presuming Xavi sits out the Finland game, Santi Cazorla is not a bad alternative to step in and share playmaking duties with Andres Iniesta and David Silva. Should Fabregas have an off day, options from the bench will include Chelsea’s Juan Mata and Sevilla’s more bustling Alvaro Negredo.
Malaga starlet Isco, still only 20, the inspiration behind Malaga’s progress past Porto to the Champions League quarter-finals last week, has been rewarded with a first senior competitive call-up. Spain have some problems, but are not short of solutions. Take six points from six in the next 1- days, and they can start packing for Brazil.