“There’s a lot at stake for us,” said Spain’s Santi Cazorla in interview with FIFA.com and, following La Roja’s unexpected slip-up at home to Finland on Friday in European Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, those words ring even more true. For next up for La Selección are Group I leaders France in Paris on Tuesday, with Les Bleus now two points clear in the race for the section’s only direct qualifying berth.
However, the extra pressure does not seem to be getting to Arsenal’s Asturias-born midfield schemer, who was happy to discuss this imminent crucial clash as well as his life since touching down in the Premier League last summer.
“At this level, the demands are always enormous, so we’re well used to being under obligation to win games,” he said, ahead of the meeting with Didier Deschamps’ charges – who snatched a draw on Spanish soil in October 2012 thanks to an injury-time goal from Cazorla’s Gunners’ team-mate Olivier Giroud.
I’ve not even thought about it (failing to qualify for Brazil 2014), because I’ve got total faith in the great team we have.
“I think that we played well in that game,” said the versatile former Malaga, Villarreal and Recreativo Huelva star. “The only thing we didn't do was put away more of the chances we created. It’s water under the bridge now though.”
That match followed a similar script to Friday’s 1-1 draw with Finland. In an encounter in which La Roja took control early on, the reigning world and European champions failed to kill the game off and were punished once their foot slipped slightly from the pedal.
“France are one of the strongest national teams in the world,” said Cazorla. “They’ve got a young team with a lot of ability and every game against them is incredibly difficult. The match in Paris will be no exception, but we’ll be going out to try and win and hope to do just that.”
Pressure on world champs
Anything less than a victory against the French will mean Vicente Del Bosque’s team no longer have their chances of securing a direct passage to Brazil 2014 in their own hands – with the possibility of needing to qualify via the play-offs looming large. However they clinch their ticket, Cazorla refuses to contemplate the holders not being there to defend their title: “I’ve not even thought about it, because I’ve got total faith in the great team we have.”
A regular in the Spanish squad ever since Luis Aragones gave him his debut in the build-up to UEFA EURO 2008, Cazorla featured in La Selección’s triumph at that competition as well as their EURO 2012 success. Yet the Asturian was forced to miss out on victory at South Africa 2010 due to injury, a circumstance that would make appearing at Brazil 2014 all the more special. “I don’t want to miss out on the World Cup again,” he said. “And particularly not in a country like Brazil, which lives football so intensely.”
All the signs are looking good for Cazorla on that score, who is enjoying a fine 2012/13 campaign. Only a bit-part player at the most recent EURO, he has been much more involved during Brazil 2014 qualifying – appearing in all La Roja’s Group I matches thus far.
Cazorla firing for Gunners
At club level too, the two-footed midfielder has adapted impressively to the challenges of the Premier League since touching down last August. “It’s a really great experience which I’m finding fascinating,” he said. “I’ve settled quickly and I’ve had a lot of help from my team-mates and others. The fans here are incredible.”
The statistics underline just why he has swiftly become a favourite in North London, with Cazorla having already struck 11 league goals so far – including a hat-trick against Reading – and the style of English football seeming to fit him like a glove.
“Here you usually get more games that go end-to-end, and in matches like those it’s harder to close down spaces like they do in Spain or Italy,” he explained. “That makes it easier for central midfielders to play. I like the tempo of the game over here.”
One of an ever-widening group of Spanish players now employed abroad, Cazorla believes that despite these individuals' gain from tasting other styles of play – it does have a down side. “I think it’s negative for Spain and for La Liga that great players like Nacho Monreal, Mikel Arteta (both Arsenal), David Silva (Manchester City) and many more have to leave the country to find their niche,” he said.
“The level of La Liga drops when they leave, and Spanish fans also don’t get to see them first-hand as often,” he added poignantly, particularly since for the first time in the history of La Selección, Del Bosque’s squad for the Finland and France games come from five foreign clubs and only four Spanish clubs.
That will be a mere footnote this Tuesday, however, when Cazorla and his squad-mates – no longer numbering the suspended Silva or Jordi Alba, injured against Finland – set their sights on sinking France in their Saint-Denis backyard. “If we want to finish top of the group,” concluded Cazorla, “we can’t afford to slip up.”