Spain closing in on World Cup qualification
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - World and European champion Spain hosts Belarus on Friday looking to take another step to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
Spain enters the game on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca level on points atop Group I with France. With a game in hand, Spain needs just four of the remaining six points in play to finish in first place and force France into a playoff to reach the tournament in Brazil
Belarus is in last place.
Here are 5 things to know about Friday's match:
MICHU & MORENO'S MOMENT
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque could give Swansea forward Miguel "Michu'' Perez and Sevilla youngster Alberto Moreno their first international appearances against Belarus. Michu made the squad as a replacement for Spain's all-time leading scorer, David Villa, who picked up an injury last weekend. With Villa and Fernando Torres both hurt, Michu has a chance to convince Del Bosque that he could be an option in attack next summer to give Spain more pace and size. "For any player, being on the national team is the top,'' said Michu. "To wear `La Roja' shirt, is to wear the shirt of the best team in the world. It's a dream come true. Every child dreams of this and I feel privileged. It's my biggest accomplishment.'' The 21-year-old Moreno is auditioning to be a backup for injured left back Jordi Alba only eight months after he was playing in the third division with Sevilla's second team.
PEDRO LEADS THE WAY
Never one to seek attention, Pedro Rodriguez is often overlooked both on the Spanish national team and a Barcelona squad led by Lionel Messi. But Del Bosque has always counted on the sprightly forward, and Pedro has returned that confidence by doing what he does best: quietly and efficiently scoring goals. Pedro leads Spain in scoring through qualifying for the World Cup with four goals, including the winner in a critical 1-0 victory at France that put Spain in control of the group. His other three goals all came in Minsk one year ago when Spain thrashed Belarus 4-0. So with Villa and Torres out, Del Bosque will likely turn to Pedro again.
MATA OR KOKE?
With Barcelona trio Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez firmly established as starters, Juan Mata and Jorge "Koke'' Resurreccion could get the nod either as starters or substitutes. The two attacking players arrive in very different circumstances. Chelsea's Mata will be eager to get playing time after falling out of favor of his new club coach Jose Mourinho. Koke, on the other hand, is on the rise at Atletico Madrid where his playmaking has helped the team to a club record start in the Spanish league with eight straight wins. "I'm always happy to play, either on the wing or in midfield, the important thing is to help out,'' Koke said.
Spain hopes to snap a streak of two straight 1-1 draws on home soil. Del Bosque's side will focus on putting the game away early so it won't risk conceding another late equalizer as it did in its two previous home matches. Last October, France striker Olivier Giroud scored deep in stoppage time after a passing error by defender Juanfran Torres. Finland then stunned Spain with a late goal in March. "We know Belarus,'' said Madrid center back Sergio Ramos. "They play defensively, but they can surprise you. We can't lose our motivation and level of effort and must stay true to our philosophy.''
THE DRAMATIC ARTS
One of Del Bosque's biggest behind-the-scenes achievements has been making sure the heated rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona didn't undermine the spirit of the national team. That said, this week will bring Barcelona's Gerard Pique and Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa together again after the two defenders' recent spat on Twitter following Madrid's 2-1 win at Elche that was decided by a disputed late penalty awarded to Madrid. On Twitter, Pique compared the match to a "comedy film,'' prompting Arbeloa's retort that he was "happy some had switched from the theater to the cinema'' in a veiled barb that Barcelona players exaggerate fouls. "We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted, neither the coach nor the players,'' Del Bosque said. "We can't allow optimism to infect us.''
NHL playoff preview: Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
NHL playoff preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets