x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

World Cup qualifying: It is Spain who reign supreme

France have the edge between the two sides historically, but they face a side currently beyond compare in their 2014 World Cup qualifier, writes Andy Mitten.

Spain players celebrate their 4-0 victory over Belarus on Friday. The world and European champions will be looking to extend their winning start in Group I against France tonight. Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA
Spain players celebrate their 4-0 victory over Belarus on Friday. The world and European champions will be looking to extend their winning start in Group I against France tonight. Tatyana Zenkovich / EPA

Laurent Blanc was not impressed when his France side were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group as European and World Champions Spain.

Only one team per group are guaranteed to go to Brazil in 2014 and Blanc pointed to far easier groups.

Blanc need not have worried - he stepped down in June after Spain beat France 2-0 in the quarter-finals to eliminate them from Euro 2012 in Ukraine, the first time Spain had beaten France in a major tournament clash.

Blanc may have played for Les Bleus in their golden age, but now Spain reign supreme.

The pair meet tonight at Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon which is being used for an international venue for only the 10th time. Spain have won seven and drawn the other two games.

Both countries have won both of their two games so far in Group I, but France face the challenging task of avoiding defeat knowing that key players are injured.

Lassana Diarra, Rio Mavuba and Abou Diaby are out, while defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa misses the game through suspension.

Team selection is for Blanc's successor, Didier Deschamps, to worry about. He admits the replacements are players "whose experience on an international level is quite weak".

But he adds: "I've nothing to be worried about and I don't want the players to be. We're going to fight with the weapons we have, and the players we have. The lack of experience can be made up by determination and will power."

He will look to Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema to lead his attack. Benzema's club teammate, Raul Albiol, will likely mark him.

But while Albiol warns: "We know Benzema, we know he's a great player," the reality is that the striker has not scored in more than a year for France. His average of a goal every four games for his country is half that of his club.

The status of the two neighbours has switched. France were never out of the top six in the world rankings for a decade between 1996-2006 when they enjoyed their golden period, winning the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship, as well as finishing runners-up in the 2006 World Cup, but they have long since slipped.

They dropped as low as 27th in 2010 after the shambles of their last World Cup. They are currently 13th.

Spain, in contrast, have occupied either first or second place since July 2008 and even the Brazil coach, Mano Menezes, last week conceded his side do not compare to the Spanish.

La Roja have won the last three meetings (including two friendly games) but France have the better historical record in key games.

Because of their usual high rankings, the teams only normally meet in the finals of competitions rather than group stages. And when they do, France usually win.

Until that June victory in Ukraine, France were the last team to knock Spain out of a competition, the 2006 World Cup.

They also knocked the Iberians out of Euro 2000, while finishing above them in their group at Euro '96. This is the first time that the two are paired in the same qualifying group since Euro '92. Back then, France beat Spain home and away to prevent them from qualifying for the finals in Sweden.

Spain unmistakably start favourites tonight. They have won their last 25 home games in all competitions, a winning run stretching back to 2006 when Romania won a friendly 1-0 in Cadiz.

They have not lost a competitive game at home since losing to Greece in a European Championship qualifier 1-0 in Zaragoza nine years ago. No team in world football can match that record.

Vicente del Bosque's side go into the match after hammering Belarus 4-0 in Minsk on Friday, a game which saw Barcelona's Pedro score a hat-trick.

Spain started without a recognised No 9, though they are likely to go with Fernando Torres. The Chelsea and Spain striker returns to play a game at the stadium he calls home for the first time in five and a half years since he left Atletico for Liverpool.

France will be hoping he is not as effective as he was then.

sports@thenational.ae