FIFA eliminated the automatic bid for the previous World Cup champion in 2002. That’s not good for Spain who, after a couple disappointing results in a flat UEFA qualifying campaign, face an uphill route to qualify for the tournament.
Spain conceded a late goal to bottom team Finland on Friday, resulting in a 1-1 draw at home. That failure, coupled with the 1-1 draw on familiar territory to France, leaves the Spanish two points behind France ahead of their meeting tomorrow at the Stade de France with four matches to play. Essentially, if the Spanish don’t win, they probably will have to qualify for 2014 through the second place playoff. Spain would be favorites against any opponent they drew. With teams such as England, Sweden, Croatia and Portugal in that mix, though, a two-legged playoff is hardly an attractive prospect.
We’ll wait for the inimitable Michael Cox to weigh in with a tactical verdict. To the layman’s eye, they look like what they are: Barcelona without Messi. They control games, but don’t really capitalize on it. They had to throw attackers onto the pitch to get a late goal against Georgia. In the last two qualifiers, they scored early, didn’t show a lot of impetus and were foiled by late equalizers. France? Fine. But there’s no reason Spain should labor against the likes of Georgia and Finland.
Their malaise may not be so big of a surprise. Spain have an embarrassments of riches at goalkeeper (Man United’s starting goalkeeper is their fourth-string) and in the midfield. They are short up front, though, having not found a true solution up front to Fernando Torres’ demise. Their back four is also not the strongest and hardly the commanding unit they had when Piqué and Puyol were at full bore.
Spain’s midfield has been enough to mask those deficiencies, but that group may finally be wearing down. For the team’s Barcelona core, 2014 will be essentially their eighth consecutive year of playing the maximum number of matches at club and international level. Iniesta will be 29 with miles in Brazil. Xavi will be 34.
Claiming the Spanish reign is over would be too strong at this stage. A win tomorrow could alter perception radically. But their present run has been unnerving and, if their midfield hive can no longer sort things out themselves, La Furia Roja could be vulnerable.
[Photo via Getty]