France vs. Spain: La Furia Roja no longer an invincible side

Denis Doyle

Back in October, France shocked Spain with a late equalizer that ended a long string of wins in competitive matches for the world champions. Since then, Les Bleus have improved. Is Spain's dynasty coming to an end?

From Sept. 8, 2007, to Oct. 16, 2012, Spain did not draw or lose a single major tournament qualifying match. It won its final four matches of Euro 2008 qualifying, put together perfect qualifying records en route to the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, then won its first two qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup. That's 24 consecutive wins in major qualifiers.

France ended that streak back in October, snatching a stoppage equalizer in Madrid to seal a shocking point and grab the upper hand on the Spaniards en route to the 2014 World Cup. On Friday, with both sides almost certainly looking ahead to Tuesday's rematch, France coasted to a win over Georgia while Spain slipped up, inexplicably dropping two more points at home, this time to Finland. Les Bleus now head into Tuesday's match two points ahead of Spain, knowing they only need a draw to put themselves in pole position to qualify for the World Cup directly and send Spain to a playoff.

However, given the recent form of the two sides and their match in Madrid, a draw shouldn't be France's goal. There's no reason to believe it doesn't have an excellent chance to do something that only one team -- Switzerland -- has managed to do in any competitive fixture since 2006 by defeating La Furia Roja. A victory would give France a five-point cushion, and given the relative weakness of Group I, it would be unthinkable for France to throw that away and fail to win the group.

Team news

France doesn't have any serious fitness issues among the players it called up onto its squad. Its midfield is light on experience, but that's down more to Didier Deschamps' current preferences and form than injuries. Lassana Diarra, Alou Diarra, Yann M'Vila and Etienne Capoue are among the central midfielders recently part of France teams that have been left out. Samir Nasri has also been left out, along with experienced defenders Philippe Mexes, Adil Rami and Bacary Sagna.

Spain has some minor fitness issues among players on its team. Jordi Alba isn't expected to be available against France, and should be replaced by Nacho Monreal. Xavi Hernandez's fitness is also in question. Victor Valdes has taken over in goal in the absence of injured captain Iker Casillas. Carles Puyol, Fernando Torres, Roberto Soldado, Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez are among the other big names who were left out of the Spain squad.

Projected lineups (left to right)

France (4-3-3): Hugo Lloris; Gael Clichy, Mamadou Sakho, Raphael Varane, Christophe Jallet; Maxime Gonalons, Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi; Franck Ribery, Olivier Giroud, Karim Benzema

Spain (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Nacho Monreal, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Alvaro Arbeloa; Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta; David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva

football formations

Projecting lineups for both teams is hard, given that the teams they played on Friday were very different than the teams they've used in other qualifying matches. It's hard to believe that France won't go back to playing a true defensive midfielder against France, and Gonalons appears to be the preferred man for that spot at the moment. David Villa's resurgence for Barcelona sees him resume his role as the left forward, cutting inside for Vicente del Bosque. Mathieu Valbuena and Paul Pogba will prove tough to drop for Didier Deschamps after the way they performed against Georgia, but Deschamps is yet to show he trusts either player in big matches.

Burning questions

How much does experience matter? -- Pogba doesn't have big-game experience at any level; he's been a substitute in his club side's most important matches. Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho are young and have just started to play at the highest level. Valbuena has played in the Champions League and has been a contributor to the French national team for a long time, but is rarely picked to start in games of this magnitude. Deschamps needs to decide if he values big game and/or international experience over form and raw talent when he picks his team.

Does it matter that Xavi is out? -- While Xavi has been heartbeat of Spain and Barcelona's recent triumphs, he's been miscast as a No. 10 for most of his time under Vicente Del Bosque. If the Spain manager is set on playing a double pivot of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso -- which he has been for years, but based on Friday's game, might not be at the moment -- Iniesta is probably a better fit than his Barcelona counterpart.

Is this Cesc Fabregas thing really still happening? -- Yes, Spain is still playing Fabregas as a false nine while leaving Michu and Alvaro Negredo on their bench, while Fernando Llorente and Roberto Soldado sit at home. Perhaps Friday's draw will convince Del Bosque that it's time for a change, but Fabregas will probably start on Tuesday.

Could Benzema be dropped? -- It's possible. It's also possible that Giroud could be dropped. While Benzema is the better club player (and more talented of the two), Giroud has been much better for France under Deschamps. The France manager has shown a willingness to start Benzema on the wing to fit both in the squad, but should probably consider picking one and giving a real wide player or attacking midfielder a shot.

How likely is a France win? -- Pretty likely, especially considering how much better this France team is than the one who drew in Madrid. France looked to have the match under control early in the first half, but defensive errors by Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny were their undoing. Their replacements are upgrades. Jallet is much more consistent than Debuchy, while Varane is in spectacular form and has physical talents that Koscielny can only dream of. They're less likely to ship an early goal due to a defensive error, and Spain doesn't look like it's ripping teams apart at the moment.

Prediction

Spain still has the deepest squad on earth, and it is still one of the two-to-three best sides on earth. It is almost certainly going to qualify for the World Cup, even if it has to go to a playoff, and it's going to compete to repeat as champions when it gets there. Having said that, they're not in terrific form and don't seem to have any idea what their best XI is. They're a better team than France, but that doesn't mean that they will be better on Tuesday, at Parc des Princes. 1-1 draw, and Spain are all but headed to a World Cup qualification playoff.

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