Jordi Alba absence exposes Spain weakness

Posted by Martin Laurence,

Jordi AlbaGettyImagesJordi Alba is a key attacking threat and will miss the France game

While England's game in Podgorica against Montenegro has been billed as the biggest in their World Cup qualifying campaign, the match in Group I with France hosting Spain will be far more appealing to the neutral, and is the focus of's analysis this week.

- Evra wants 'arrogance' versus Spain
- Monreal: Spain have no room for error

Few would have tipped Les Bleus to go into the game against the World and European champions with an advantage, but results on Friday night have certainly given Didier Deschamps hope. While France were comfortable in victory over Georgia, able to hand valuable experience to the likes of Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba in the process, Spain were left dumfounded as to how they were unable to secure three points against bottom of the group Finland.

The phrase 'parking the bus' had more than a little to do with the outcome, with the visitors keeping 10 men behind the ball even after Europe's youngest ever centurion Sergio Ramos broke the deadlock early in the second half. Spain's failure to add a second was eventually costly after a rare counter attack and foray into the hosts' half saw Teemu Pukki stab home an inviting low cross from the left to equalise.

The fact that Spain's goal came from a set piece was indicative of a problem that Del Bosque's team have been bound to face. Even top sides will line-up against them keeping men behind the ball, as France looked to do in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, and the world's number one nation have struggled to break through two walls of defence at times.

In this qualifying campaign, despite scoring in every game, the Spaniards have netted more the once in just one of their four matches thus far. Their goal in the reverse fixture against France also came courtesy of Ramos from a corner, and were it not for an 86th minute Roberto Soldado strike against Georgia they may have found themselves in an even more precarious position.

The match between the two sides in Donetsk last year was one that led to another controversy in the France national camp and ultimately cost Laurent Blanc his job. The former Bordeaux boss fielded a defensive side and they were simply outclassed, managing just four shots at goal in the entire game, with a long-range effort from Yohan Cabaye forcing Iker Casillas into his only save of the game.

Nevertheless, were it not for an injury time Xabi Alonso penalty the result, if not the performance, would have looked far less convincing against a France side that were truly awful on the day. Spain had just 12 shots themselves as France looked to shut them out, and like his opposite number Hugo Lloris made just one save with only three of the victors' efforts hitting the target.

The fact that a key man in that game is out will also give hope to the hosts on Tuesday, with Jordi Alba absent due to a hamstring strain. The Barca full-back assisted Alonso's first back in June and was instrumental in the match as a whole, up against a makeshift France right-flank, with a WhoScored match rating of eight only bettered by match-winner Xabi Alonso (8.7).

Alba was again a real threat and outlet when these two sides met back in October in the reverse fixture in Spain, with only Alonso (137) having more touches. The defender had 130 in total, which is more than twice as many as the two full-backs that played on Spain's right (Arbeloa and Juanfran) combined (64), and it's a figure he's bettered just four times for Barcelona this season.

The full-back's importance to the national side is growing, not merely due to his rise to prominence in the Euros last year but down to what many would see as a dearth of options on either side of Del Bosque's defence. Nacho Monreal will come in for the 24-year-old, and though the Arsenal man is a very dependable defender, he doesn't offer the attacking impetus or perhaps understanding that Alba has conjured with his team-mates, many of whom he joined at Camp Nou last summer.

In turn, France will look upon their wingers to be the key to what are likely to be reasonably sporadic attacks and while Ribery will be the focus of Arbeloa's attention, Monreal will have to deal with another unfamiliar French right flank. With Debuchy injured, PSG's Christophe Jallet will keep his place at the back, while Mathieu Valbuena's strike last week should also see the diminutive playmaker start.

The Marseille man has predominantly pulled the strings from in behind the striker for his club, and it's fair to say he's more comfortable in that role, creating more chances than any other player in Ligue 1 (90). Though the bulk have come from set pieces, Valbuena has also delivered the most accurate crosses in the French top flight (62) and certainly has the delivery to find the likes of Kareem Benzema and Olivier Giroud, both of whom are likely to feature at some stage or another on Tuesday.

Monreal's defensive qualities may well be up to the task, completing 2.1 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per game in league appearances for Malaga and Arsenal combined this season, but his lack of attacking drive comparative to that of Alba will be key. He, like Arbeloa, is more comfortable in his own half, which on paper would give Spain more balance but in turn will put more pressure on the likes of the returning Xavi and Xabi Alonso - both of whom have struggled for fitness of late - to force the issue from the middle more than usual.

Given that a point would leave the French in the driving seat to win the group outright, that loss of an attacking outlet is a huge blow for Del Bosque, who will see Tuesday night's match as a must win encounter.

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