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WORLD CUP QUALIFICATION

Spain’s safest hands required

Valdés in line to keep Casillas out of vital World Cup clash against Georgia

Víctor Valdés (l) and Iker Casillas during a training session in Albacete ahead of the Georgia match.
Víctor Valdés (l) and Iker Casillas during a training session in Albacete ahead of the Georgia match.Josema Moreno (DIARIO AS)

Spain hosts Georgia in Albacete on Tuesday evening (Telecinco, 9pm) needing just a single point from the game to ensure direct qualification for next summer's World Cup in Brazil. Vicente del Bosque's team beat Belarus 2-1 in Mallorca's Iberostar stadium last Friday in a performance dictated by the visitor's plan to stifle the host's passing game. But more than the result, the coach's decision to play the in-form Víctor Valdés in goal in place of the inactive Iker Casillas made the headlines on Saturday.

Del Bosque would not be drawn on who would be entrusted to keep Georgia at bay, but he is no longer speaking in terms of Casillas being Spain's automatic first-choice keeper, despite his heroics over the past decade and the three major tournaments delivered when the Real Madrid man has been in possession of the captain's armband. However, as Del Bosque pointed out after the match, the Real stopper has "played only one game in the last five weeks." Casillas was caught on camera telling fellow bench-warmer Pepe Reina he wasn't thinking about leaving Madrid at the moment, but surely with his World Cup place — and another shot at immortality in Brazil — in jeopardy, it won't be long until he changes his mind.

It would be as well not to enter into Real-politick on this occasion: should Temuri Ketsbaia's side pull off a famous victory and France turn around a goal difference of minus three at home to Finland, Spain would be cast into the lottery of the playoffs, where some strong teams will surely lurk.

Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal is one candidate for the sudden-death round, a familiar travail Os Navegadores have had to set a course through in recent years, and one that they look likely to have to weather again after a 1-1 tie at home to Israel in the penultimate round of matches. Russia tops Group F on 21 points to Portugal's 18, with a seven-goal advantage and an equal head-to-head record between the two.

As it stands, that leaves Portugal requiring a win over Luxembourg by at least eight goals in the Estádio Cidade de Coimbra, and hoping that Azerbaijan beats Russia to nil in Baku.

"Theoretically, the strongest team [in the playoffs] is France," said Ronaldo, apparently not betting heavily on Les Bleus, Azerbaijan or his own side's chances. "If there is one side I don't want to have to play, it's them."

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