Currently flying high at the top of Group 5 of European qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, UEFA EURO 2008 winners Spain could face their toughest test so far when they travel to Belgium this Wednesday. La Selección have kicked off their campaign in fine style with three wins from three games, but their Belgian hosts lie second in the group only two points behind, just ahead of Korea/Japan 2002 semi-finalists Turkey on goal difference.
On the back of comfortable 1-0, 4-0 and 3-0 wins over Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia and Estonia respectively, La Roja should face a sterner examination in Brussels against a Diables Rouges side whose only dropped points have come in a 1-1 draw with Turkey in Istanbul.
Asked about his opponents this week in a recent interview, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque told FIFA.com:"The Belgian national team has undergone a lot of changes, with just a few veterans remaining, and it has been built around the Olympic squad that had an excellent tournament in Beijing. They've got very good players and are going to be difficult opponents."
Saint Iker to the rescue
A crucial first step towards a fourth consecutive Spanish victory on the road to South Africa 2010 would be keeping another clean sheet, a feat that is becoming second nature to a Roja outfit on a run of seven games without conceding. Indeed, the last time their defence was breached was in the final group game at EURO 2008, when a second-string side with Pepe Reina between the sticks beat Greece 2-1.
First-choice shotstopper Iker Casillas has now gone 710 minutes unbeaten at national-team level. And though his defensive line deserve their share of the credit, it is San Iker (Saint Iker) who Spain look to when all appears to be lost. Taking Saturday's clash away to Estonia as an example, it took a smart one-on-one save from the captain to prevent Vladimir Voskoboinikov putting the home side into a 14th-minute lead, a goal which would have made Spain's task that much harder.
But the Real Madrid custodian will need his famed reflexes to be at their sharpest this Wednesday against on-fire Belgium front-man Wesley Sonck. The Club Brugge sharpshooter has scored in each of the Diables Rouges' South Africa 2010 qualifiers, firing a brace in the 3-2 win over Estonia, a goal in the 1-1 draw in Turkey and his side's opener in the 2-0 success over Armenia on Saturday.
However, Belgium coach Rene Vandereycken is aware that his team cannot just rely on their in-form front-man to secure victory over Del Bosque's charges: "We're taking on a team that haven't lost for a very long time, so we can expect a much tougher task than against Armenia." Indeed, Spain have not lost a FIFA World Cup qualifier since a 1-0 defeat to Denmark in Copenhagen on 31 March 1993, a run of 38 matches unbeaten.
And Belgium have not beaten Spain without the help of penalty kicks since the European Championship 1980, though Iberian fans still have painful memories of Butragueno and Co's spot-kick defeat at the quarter-final stage of Mexico 1986. Overall, the stats favour Spain, who have won nine and lost just five of the 20 matches between the two sides. The last time the pair drew was in March 1995 in Seville, the game finishing 1-1.
"I want us to be a compact side, to be more disciplined in a collective sense and to be confident in the knowledge that anything's possible in football," says Vandereycken. "If we've already beaten them in the past, why won't it happen again?"
Villa blazing a trail
Lining up opposite Sonck and Co will be another striker in red-hot form, Valencia's lethal front-runner David Villa. El Guaje has hit four goals so far, level with Sonck at the top of the Group 5 scorers' charts, and has already racked up 22 goals in 39 games for the senior side. His average of 0.56 goals per game is one of the best in the recent history of the Spanish national team - only Fernando Morientes' 0.57 is better.
Top scorer at EURO 2008, Villa should have another opportunity to add to his impressive stats against the Belgians on Wednesday. A brace from the Asturias-born goalgetter would make him the fifth-highest scorer of all time for La Selección, overtaking Alfredo Di Stefano and Julio Salinas - both on 23.
Can he continue his purple patch in the Belgian capital? Or will it be Sonck who has the last laugh?