Thursday, 4 August 2011
Spain’s World Cup 2014 opponents
In these opulent times for Spanish football, qualification for major tournaments is seen as nothing but a formality. Even in more barren times, when disappointment and frustration were the prevailing feelings of Spanish fans at international competitions, la selección were always good at cruising through the qualification process.
In times gone by Spain wouldn’t even have been forced to go through the indignity of qualifying. Holders have only had to qualify for the World Cup since 2003 when hosts for 2014, Brazil, had to qualify despite lifting the trophy for the fifth time in 2002.
However, Spain have been handed a tricky draw to ensure they will be in Brazil to defend their crown in three years time. France, the team that nobody wanted from the second pot of seeds, join the World Champions in a group also containing Belarus, Georgia and Finland.
Here is a quick guide to what Spain can expect when the qualifiers get underway in just over 12 months time.
Taking a job at a time when things cannot possibly get any worse is one of the more underrated (and sly) qualities of a good manager. After the French World Cup debacle in South Africa, Laurent Blanc found himself in the fortunate position that no matter what he did in his new role it would be an improvement on the shambles left by Raymond Domenech.
A year into his reign and despite a gradual improvement, the former Barcelona defender has certainly had to rely on that understanding from the French public.
A defeat to Belarus in his first competitive match indicated that the hangover from South Africa could be a long one, but within four days France had regained some pride and more importantly vital Euro 2012 qualification points with a victory in Bosnia.
Friendly wins over England and Brazil have followed and apart from another slip-up against the Belarussians in a 1-1 draw in June the qualification process has been relatively plain sailing.
Blanc has restored a certain amount of pride in playing for the national team by introducing a number of Ligue 1 youngsters to the squad alongside some of the more renowned names who were so ineffective last summer. Most of the established stars are Ligue 1 or Premier League based but in Karim Benzema, Erica Abidal, Lassana Diarra and Adil Rami there are a sprinkling of familiar faces for La Liga watchers.
A rejuvenated France would have frightened most of the batch of top seeds in the draw but it is hard to see many sides causing Spain too many problems in the near future. France will undoubtedly be their closest challengers but Spain’s 2-0 win in Paris last year evidenced the current gulf between the sides and the World and European Champions should comfortably see them off again.
Belarussian football has never had it so good. That 1-0 victory over France in September last year launched a European Championships qualifying campaign that sees the former Soviet state in with the chance of qualification for a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation.
They currently sit second behind France in Group D but have a good chance to hold off Bosnia and Romania to make it to the play-offs.
They reached their highest ever world ranking of 36 in February of this year and only two months ago their U-21 side came within a minute of eliminating Spain at the semi-final stage of the U-21 European Championships.
How those young players that performed so well in Denmark cope with the step up to full international level will be the key to whether Belarus can continue their rapid development in recent years, but there is little reason to believe that they can’t at least hold their position amongst the top 50 sides in the world. BATE Borisov are now regular competitors in the Champions and Europa League and their academy, which has produced talents such as Barca’s Alexander Hleb in the past, continues to develop a conveyor-belt of players for the national team and to sell abroad.
Despite his struggles in recent times, Hleb remains the central figure and is one of the more experienced players in a very young squad. Captain and goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov and Sergei Kornilenko both of Zenit St. Petersburg are the other experienced campaigners with nearly 100 caps between them. Kornilenko is also the most prolific member of the squad with 10 international goals.
Belarus’ rise in the world game has largely gone unnoticed as they are yet to qualify for a major tournament, but with an impressive batch of young stars they could be a side to look out for. Unfortunately for them though, even with a great improvement this draw means the beaches of Brazil will be a step too far.
One positive for the Spanish about this draw will be the air miles. Another long journey was guaranteed when they were paired with Georgia from the fourth pot of seeds and despite being another tricky up and coming opponent they are another side that Vicente Del Bosque will be losing little sleep over.
The most recognisable name amongst the current squad is Kakha Kaladze, the former Milan defender now playing for Genoa. However, there is also a cult figure on the bench. Temuri Ketsbaia took over as coach of his home nation in 2009 after guiding Anorthosis Famagusta to the Champions League group stages and a brief stint at Olympiakos.
Results since Ketsbaia’s appointment have been greatly improved. Georgia achieved arguably their greatest ever result in defeating Croatia in a Euro 2012 qualifier in March and although they are highly unlikely to qualify, their current fourth placed position in Group F is much healthier than the bottom-placed finish for World Cup qualification two years ago.
There is plenty of experience in the side in former Rangers and Blackburn defender Zurab Khizanishvili, Hertha Berlin’s Levan Kobiashvili and Alexander Iashvili of Karlsruher. However, there is no star player of previous generations such as Ketsbaia himself, Shota Arveladze or Georgi Kinkladze.
Georgia may spring the odd surprise but they will be battling to avoid a return to the bottom of the pile by the time the group is complete.
Finland are another side who have undergone a recent managerial change in an attempt to halt their slide down the world rankings.
Mixu Paatelainen left Kilmarnock to manage his homeland in April after a poor start to Euro 2012 qualification saw Stuart Baxter removed from his job.
The immediate goal for Paatelainen is simply to move Finland back up the rankings to ensure a more amiable group of opponents in future qualifying campaigns. Baxter’s reign saw the Fins slip from 36 to 86 in FIFA’s rankings, but to put the blame solely on the former manager would be unfair.
Quite simply Finland are not producing the players they used to. As a consequence they are having to rely on ageing stars of the past. Jari Litmanen at 40 still turns out regularly for the national side, whilst captain Petri Pasanen and star striker Mikael Forssell have both now turned the wrong side of 30.
There is some hope in the form of the Eremenko brothers in midfield. Alexei was one of Scotland’s players of the year last season when he followed Paatelainen to Rugby Park on loan from Metalist Kharkiv and his younger sibling Roman has been a regular for Dynamo Kyiv over the past two seasons.
La Liga followers will also get accustomed with defender Jukka Raitala this season after he completed his loan move to Osasuna last month.
Finland’s main priority will be taking points from Georgia and Belarus in an attempt to climb back up the world ladder but there should be no nasty surprise in Scandinavia for Del Bosque’s side.