Reigning world champions Spain face a stiff test on the qualifying road to Brazil as they attempt to defend their crown. Drawn into a reduced five-team pool, the Spaniard's have been pitched against neighbours and long-time rivals France, with both sides expected to battle it out for the sole direct ticket to Brazil 2014.
As their respective records and reputations suggest, Spain and France are the two teams to beat in Group I. Yet, if their widely varying performances at South Africa 2010 are anything to go by, the French will have to up their game considerably to deny Vicente del Bosque’s side. While the men in red were lifting their first world title, the crisis-stricken Bleus had already crashed out of the tournament at the group phase. Things have changed since then, however, with Laurent Blanc taking charge of the team and a new wave of players coming in, hoping to restore the lustre France acquired in becoming world champions in 1998. In contrast, La Roja have opted for continuity, preferring to stick with the personnel and the formula that has served them so well since UEFA EURO 2008.
Finland: While Finland’s position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking has left them with an onerous assignment, their improved form suggests they could prove to be tough opponents. In the qualifiers for South Africa 2010 the Scandinavians won half their games in a tough section in which they finished behind Germany and Russia, who went out in the play-offs to Slovenia.
Belarus: The French, meanwhile, will be wary of facing Belarus, who became a member association of FIFA in 1992 following the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Drawn together in the ongoing preliminaries for EURO 2012, the eastern Europeans stunned France with a 1-0 win early in the group and then held them to a draw in the return game. Their tactical discipline and physical prowess could cause the big two similar problems when this section gets under way.
Players to watch
Xavi, Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, David Villa (ESP), Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Kevin Gameiro, Marvin Martin (FRA), Alexei Eremenko, Petri Pasanen, Mikkael Forssell (FIN), Levan Kobiashvili, Jano Ananidze (GEO), Sergei Krivets (BLR)
The crunch match
With respect to Finland, Belarus and Georgia, all eyes will be on the two duels between the group favourites.
A look back
Spain have won 13 of the 30 matches they have played against France, losing 11 times and drawing six. In recent friendlies they had the edge over Les Bleus, though they have painful memories of competitive games between the two nations. Ousted by the French in the Round of 16 at Germany 2006, they also lost to them in the quarter-finals at UEFA EURO 2000 and came off second best the final of the 1984 European championship, a game in which Michel Platini and Luis Arconada took centre stage.
4 - The number of times that two previous world champions have been drawn together in the same pool in Europe. Prior to Spain and France, England fought it out with Germany on the road to Korea/Japan 2002, and against Italy in the same qualifying groups for Argentina 1978 and France 1998.
Did you know?
Spain have crossed swords with the Finns in one previous FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, losing to Finland 2-0 away and then beating them 6-0 at home in the Mexico 1970 preliminaries but missing out on a finals place. The Spaniards will be hoping for a better outcome this time.
Have your say
Which side of the Pyrenees will be celebrating when Spain and France square off?