Having waltzed through the qualifying process for their past two major tournaments, Spain find themselves in an undignified tangle at the halfway point on the road to the World Cup in Brazil.
While most of the fancied nations appear well-placed to qualify for next year’s finals automatically, world champions Spain head to Paris to play Group I leaders France today knowing a defeat would leave them five points adrift.
They are not alone in feeling a little vulnerable. England, despite an 8-0 victory in San Marino on Friday, go to Montenegro trailing the tiny Adriatic nation by two points and with two of Serie A’s leading strikers to contend with.
Portugal too, have plenty of work ahead of them to reach the country they discovered. They make the long trip to Azerbaijan sitting third in Group F, without suspended captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, and with the pressure growing on coach Paulo Bento.
“We are in a difficult situation, but nothing is impossible. Winning in Azerbaijan is the only way to continue the fight for qualification for the World Cup,” defender Joao Pereira said.
Spain’s surprise home draw with Finland on Friday followed last October’s 1-1 home draw with France and handed the initiative to Les Bleus, who beat Georgia 3-1 on Friday.
Anything less than a victory at the Stade de France would leave Spain contemplating a back door entry to Brazil via the playoffs.
“We were always going to Paris to win and nothing has changed,” striker David Villa told Spanish newspaper Marca. “The result against Finland has given us even more reason to go there and get three points.”
Arsenal defender Nacho Monreal said that although the clash with France could not be considered a “final,” whoever wins it would take a huge step toward Brazil.
“It’s too early to talk about it like a final, but we don’t have much margin for error,” Monreal said. “If we lose, we would be five points behind and in a small group it would be complicated to finish in first position.”
Spain have won three of their past four matches against France, including at last year’s Euro 2012 finals in Ukraine, and the last time they tasted defeat was in the round-of-16 of the 2006 World Cup.
Montenegro versus England does not have the same tradition as a meeting of France and Spain, but nevertheless the Balkan nation have quickly proved they are capable of mixing it with the big boys of world soccer.
England failed to beat them in Euro 2012 qualifying, drawing home and away, and another failure to do so would make it an uncomfortable time before they face Moldova in September.
The question marks at the heart of England’s defense, which has been robbed of the likes of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, as well as several others to injury, remain after an 8-0 win in San Marino in which Roy Hodgson would have learned nothing.
Montenegro’s Italy-based strikers Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic will be ready to exploit any weakness in that area in what will be a noisy atmosphere in Podgorica.
“They have got certain individuals in the world-class category. We are well aware of the task in hand and know it’s a much tougher game,” said England captain Steven Gerrard, who along with Ashley Cole was rested against San Marino. “I don’t know whether crucial is the right word to describe this game, but it is certainly a result we need.”
A total of 17 matches take place across Europe today, after which the qualifying picture may be a little clearer.
Italy can consolidate top spot in Group B when they travel to Malta, with second-placed Bulgaria facing Denmark.
Germany can move eight points clear in Group C with victory at home to Kazakhstan, while in Group D the Netherlands will look to make it six wins out of six when they host Romania.
Group A is emerging as one of the most tightly-contested sections, with Belgium and Croatia locked together on 13 points. Belgium face Macedonia today and will hope Wales can take points off of Croatia in Cardiff.