Odds stacked against France in qualifier vs. Spain
PARIS (AP) -- Hit by injuries and reeling from a surprise 1-0 loss to Japan, with its strikers struggling to score and a patched-up defense looking far from secure, France has enough to worry about without even thinking about Spain's quality ahead of their World Cup qualifier on Tuesday.
Both teams won their opening two qualifiers to share the lead in Group I.
But while Spain cruised into top gear with a 4-0 away win in Belarus on Friday -- extending their winning run in qualifiers to 24 -- France's confidence was dented by a late goal at home against Japan in a friendly the same night.
"We're playing against the best team in the world, they've won two European Championships and the World Cup, so they are still the team to beat,'' France defender Laurent Koscielny said. "They have a lot of similarities with Barcelona, we know all about their qualities. It will be a very hard match.''
Spain last failed to win a qualifying match for either the World Cup or European Championship in September 2007, when it drew 1-1 with Iceland in Reykjavik, and recent history is not in France's favor.
Spain beat France 2-0 in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal, Laurent Blanc's last game in charge before Didier Deschamps replaced him.
"In the best of all worlds, I don't think we'll have that many chances against Spain,'' Deschamps said. "We will have to defend well and, when we do get chances, we'll have to be far more efficient than we were against Japan.''
Still, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque expects France to pose a threat.
"They have forwards who can play the ball long, and they have added some fresh and physical powerful players,'' he said. "It will be a complicated game.''
Blanc played ultra-conservatively against the Spanish and the move backfired. Deschamps has pledged to be more ambitious, but the players are uncertain about the best approach.
"As soon as we have the ball, we have to use it well, keep hold of it and launch counterattacks,'' said Koscielny said. "There are different solutions: either to do what Chelsea did when they won (in the Champions League against Barcelona), and play very deep, or to close them down high up the pitch. "
In other matches, England looks to cement its grip on Group H when it travels to play Warsaw in Poland, and Germany's confidence will be sky-high for the visit of Sweden after routing Ireland 6-1 in Dublin. Germany has won its three games so far in Group C.
Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score for the first time in six matches as Portugal slipped to a 1-0 defeat away to Group F leader Russia on Friday, but the Real Madrid forward will be keen to make amends against Northern Ireland in Porto.
Italy is unbeaten in Group B and takes on Denmark in Milan. Something has to give in Group D when Romania faces the Netherlands in Bucharest, with both countries on nine points.
Belgium and Croatia are also vying for supremacy in Group A. Belgium takes on Scotland and Croatia hosts Wales, which beat Scotland 2-1 on Friday.
In Madrid, Del Bosque must decide which attack suits him best - Chelsea's Fernando Torres as a central striker or Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas as a floating forward.
"We are on a good run,'' Fabregas said. "But we know that we are playing against a direct rival. "
Spain's central defenders Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are out injured, but Deschamps must contain Spain's world-class midfield of Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez with his midfield decimated by injury to Abou Diaby, Rio Mavuba and Lassana Diarra.
Koscielny will likely play alongside Mamadou Sakho in only their second match together for France.
In attack, Deschamps may play Arsenal's Olivier Giroud alongside Karim Benzema. No striker has scored for France in the past eight games.
"I'm sure we can cause them problems,'' Giroud said.
England's strikers had no such problem finding the net against San Marino, with Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck scoring two goals each.
"I'm used to playing with Wazza up front at (Manchester) United and am really relishing the chance to play with him for England,'' Welbeck said. "Once we get into positions in and around the box, we know different styles of combinations to play.''
However, England goes to Poland without winger Theo Walcott, who has a chest injury and stayed in hospital on Friday night after being poleaxed by San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini in England's 5-0 win. Midfielder Frank Lampard sits out the trip because of a knee injury.
Steven Gerrard is expected to come back into the side after serving a one-game suspension and will take over the armband from Rooney, who climbed to fifth in England's all-time scorers list with 31 goals after his brace.
Rooney will continue to lead England's attack but is wary of the threat posed by Poland, which has Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski.
"They're a good team, good, quick team, counter-attacking team,'' Rooney said.
Poland will move level on points with England with seven points if it wins. Montenegro can also move up to seven points if it wins away to struggling Ukraine, which has two points.
German veteran Miroslav Klose needs only three more goals to match Germany's all-time top scorer Gerd Mueller's tally of 68. Klose's showdown with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has 11 goals in his past 12 games for club and country, promises to be intriguing in Berlin.
"Sweden is not only Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They play differently than Ireland, they can combine and not only hit long balls,'' Germany coach Joachim Loew said. "We'll have to be very concentrated in defense.''
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