Finland face one of the toughest tasks in international football on Friday, when they visit holders Spain in FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Since winning Euro 2008 under Luis Aragones, Spain have swept all before them to become the game’s undisputed powerhouse.
Former Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque succeeded Aragones, leading his country’s national team to glory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, before orchestrating a successful defence of their European Championship crown in Poland and Ukraine last year.
Despite their status as holders of the prestigious competition, Spain must earn the right to defend the World Cup by qualifying for the tournament in Brazil next year.
Drawn in Group I of UEFA qualifying, they sit joint top with France, having mustered seven points from a possible nine, dropping two in a 1-1 draw at home to Didier Deschamps’ men last year.
The other teams in the pool – Georgia, Belarus and Finland – appear to be merely making up the numbers, as the two European heavyweights scrap it out for top spot and an automatic route to FIFA’s quadrennial showcase.
It will take a monumental effort from Finland to prevent Spain collecting maximum points at Estadio Municipal El Molinon in Gijon.
Their two competitive outings so far in this qualifying campaign ended in a 1-0 defeat to France and a 1-1 draw with Georgia, both at home.
Those results have left Mixu Paatelainen’s side bottom of Group I with one point from a possible six, although they have played one match fewer than all other teams in the pool.
While Spain are sure to produce nothing less than a professional performance against the minnows on Friday, their thoughts could be straying to the pivotal showdown with France in Paris four days later.
Having shared the spoils when they met in Madrid last October, whichever team claims all three points from the clash at the Stade de France will take a giant leap toward guaranteeing qualification.
Finland, meanwhile, will hope to catch Spain off guard and perhaps cause an almighty upset, with emerging star Teemu Pukki one of the best tools at their disposal.
The 22-year-old striker joined Bundesliga giants Schalke from HJK in 2011, and found himself starting up front against Galatasaray in the Champions League round of 16 this month after first-choice centre forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was ruled out through injury.
Despite his rapid climb to Europe’s biggest stage, it will take something special from Pukki and his team-mates to prevent a clinical Spanish victory.
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