SOCCER

Ninety minutes to avoid a play-off

Spain travels to Saint-Denis two points adrift of France in battle for Brazil berth

Vicente del Bosque and Xavi during Monday's training session.
Vicente del Bosque and Xavi during Monday's training session.EFE

On July 12, 1998 in Saint-Denis, France's journey to the status of world champions was completed in a 3-0 rout of Brazil, during which Zinedine Zidane sealed his own legend.

Back then, Spain was still an international also-ran, and failed to get out of a group containing the might of Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria. Tiki-taka was still the seed of an idea being carefully nurtured at Barcelona, the legacy of Johan Cruyff that would be later embodied by Pep Guardiola and the class of 2008.

Spain, of course, has benefited directly from the Camp Nou's cunning, and no fewer than seven La Masia graduates are regulars in La Roja's starting 11. Under the guidance of Luis Aragonés and Vicente del Bosque, Spain has won the last three major tournaments in a row and is among the favorites for the title in Brazil next year. However, that is a journey that may well be curtailed in the Stade de France on Tuesday evening (Telecinco, 9pm).

In European qualifying only the top team in each group goes through to the pot for 2014 automatically. The remaining eight best-placed runners-up are pitted against each other in a playoff round that could well feature England, Italy, Portugal and Sweden. A 1-1 tie against Finland in Gijón last Friday has left Spain two points behind France in Group I, with three games remaining after Tuesday's clash.

A five-point gap will be all but decisive. Del Bosque's side simply cannot afford to give any quarter in the northern Parisian arrondissement.

I saw the Finland game and thought Spain deserved to win," said Deschamps

"The crest doesn't win you games," said Sergio Ramos, who provided the goal when the teams played out a 1-1 tie in the Calderón last October. "What has always led us to success has been our philosophy, our way of playing, and we should not change that. We have a great team."

Ramos, who described Spain as a "wounded bull" after the Finland game, in which he also scored the point-saving goal, admitted the team had "relaxed" a little against its Scandinavian opponent. "It cost us. We thought one goal would be enough."

"I watched the game against Finland and thought Spain deserved to win because they had a lot of chances," said France coach Didier Deschamps, a member of the 1998 winning side. "But sometimes soccer is difficult. I thought Spain would win but that is not going to change our attitude toward them."

Spain will be without Jordi Alba, which is a genuine problem as most of the trouble caused for Finland was wrought down the left-hand side in the Barça full back's understanding with former Valencia teammate David Villa.

However, Arsenal's Nacho Monreal is a more than adequate replacement. Of more concern to Spain will be whether its talisman Xavi is fit to take the field, and control of the game, which was lacking at times in Gijón.

Portugal, meanwhile, is in dire straits and must get three points from its trip to Azerbaijan to revive not just its chances of qualification, but also those of reaching its habitual route to major tournament soccer, the playoffs. Four points behind Russia and below Israel on goal difference, Paulo Bento's side salvaged a point last time out in Israel through an injury-time strike courtesy of Real Madrid's Fabio Coentrão.

It is another of Real's players that Portuguese eyes instinctively turn to when backs are against the wall, but Bento will have to plot a way through what will be an ultra-defensive opponent without his captain and match-winner, who picked up a third group-stage caution in Israel and is suspended for the trip to Baku.

However, the collective wiles of Nani, João Moutinho and the poacher, Helder Póstiga, should give Azerbaijan something to think about. Any result other than a win, considering Russia's game in hand, and Portugal can start thinking about the playoffs - or the 2016 European Championships.

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