The pressure is on for Spain to beat France in Paris on Tuesday, or risk failing to qualify automatically for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Holders Spain were surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw at home to Finland on Friday, with France’s 3-1 win over Georgia sending them two points clear at the top of Group I.
Only the team which finishes first is guaranteed an automatic route to next year’s finals in Brazil, with the eight best runners-up from nine UEFA groups going into tense two-legged play-offs.
The first match in the group between France and Spain ended in a 1-1 draw in Madrid last October, when Olivier Giroud’s 94th-minute equaliser earned the visitors what could prove to be an invaluable point.
Spain’s outlook took a major turn for the worse in Gijon last week, when, despite dominating possession throughout at El Molinon, Teemu Pukki’s 79th-minute strike denied the heavyweights hosts maximum points.
It has become a familiar story for the Spain.
Adept at keeping the ball, they have often struggled to breakdown opponents who set out with the sole purpose of denying space to the world and European champions.
Playing without a recognised striker during much of Euro 2012, a succession of narrow victories saw Vicente del Bosque’s team criticised for a perceived lack of invention.
The first team which dared to attack Spain was Italy in the tournament’s final, and they were promptly demolished 4-0, offering a warning to any other side foolhardy enough to stray from the blueprint of an ultra-defensive approach.
It is unlikely Didier Deschamps will make the same mistake at the Stade de France this week.
Despite an abundance of attacking and creative talent in their squad, caution will be the watchword for the hosts, and a draw would be a welcome return as they seek to preserve their two-point buffer at the top of the standings.
Highly rated youngsters Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane impressed on debut in the win over Georgia, but inexperience could count against them when Deschamps names his next line-up.
And Varane’s Real Madrid colleague Karim Benzema may be dropped after he endured another poor display in front of goal.
For Spain, midfielder Cesc Fabregas was deployed in a central attacking role last week, with Barcelona’s David Villa and Sevilla man Alvaro Negredo the only dedicated strikers in Del Bosque’s squad.
It remains to be seen if this aversion to a traditional centre forward will count against Spain as they look to secure the right to defend their trophy in South America next June.