WC Qual - UEFA
March 22, 2013
Finnish in sight as Spain eye recovery
Team Stat Comparison
#INSERT type:image caption:Spain drew with France last time out and are looking to reassert their superiority in Group I END#Spain's last competitive outing proved a real collectors' item as France became the first side to take qualifying points off the world and double European champions in more than five years. Before Les Bleus' claimed a 1-1 draw in Madrid in October, it was minnows Iceland who were the last side to hold Spain; when World Cup qualifying resumes on Friday, Finland will be hoping to spring a Scandinavian surprise of their own. The Finns do boast some previous when it comes to pegging back the continent's elite, having drawn home and away to Germany in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, but they travel to Gijon's Estadio El Molinon with little hope of giving their country a second weekend of sporting celebration following Kimi Raikonen's victory in the first Grand Prix of the Formula One season last Sunday. Finland have never previously reached a World Cup or European Championship finals and have finished bottom of their group in 13 of 28 qualification campaigns. Eight of those failures came in their first eight attempts at making the World Cup, however, and the outlook has been a little brighter in the nation's more recent history. Finishing third in World Cup qualifying in 2010 was an admirable achievement, while they missed out on reaching the play-offs for the 1998 World Cup, as well as for Euro 2004 and Euro 2008, by a whisker. Unfortunately for Finland, their major tournament duck shows no signs of being broken in Brazil 2014 after they posted just one point on the board from their opening two qualifiers – a 1-0 defeat to France and 1-1 draw with Georgia, both at home. Having been handed a horror draw alongside both Spain and France, the task facing coach Mixu Paatelainen – who spent the majority of his playing career in Scotland – is simply to guide his side to the 'best of the rest' title. The former national team striker has selected a young squad (average age 25) for the visit to Spain and he can guarantee his charges a learning curve at the very least in Gijon. The last time Spain faced Finland - in qualifying for the 1970 World Cup – Pepe Reina's father Miguel was La Roja's goalkeeper as Francisco Gento, Amancio and Co produced a masterclass to win 6-0, having been leading 5-0 at half-time. Back then, Las Palmas and Elche had representatives in the Spain team, though it was still dominated by a combined six players from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Fast forward 44 years and Vicente del Bosque will again rely on the pre-eminent Primera Division pair in Gijon, with at least nine players from Barca and Madrid expected to start for Spain. With the return clash against France coming up next Tuesday, Xavi is expected to be rested, with his spot likely to be filled by Arsenal's Santi Cazorla. Xabi Alonso is struggling to make the starting line-up, meaning David Silva, Juan Mata and Cesc Fabregas are primed to take the one remaining place in the midfield alongside Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta. David Villa will probably return to lead the line for the first time this qualifying campaign, with Pedro – who has nine goals in his last six internationals – to provide attacking support. Del Bosque has attempted to stifle talk about next week's crucial trip to Paris, insisting: "We have a sound team. The team will respond very well. We need to focus on Finland first. I'm worried about the match in Gijon only. We need to be on good form and get three points." In reality, though, it is impossible to ignore what has emerged as a potential group-deciding fixture and, with an abundance of quality and first-team spaces limited, a match with Finland provides an opportunity for the staking of claims. The Finns should be fearful as Spain go out to erase the Bleu-stained blot on their copybook and reassert their superiority in Group I. Spain player to watch: Pedro. The Barcelona forward scored just two goals in his first 18 matches for Spain but has been in blistering form at international level since then, netting nine in his last six games - including his first professional hat-trick in the 4-0 World Cup qualifying rout of Belarus in October. Often forgotten because of Spain's myriad other talents, Pedro has become adept at exploiting the space left as teams chase down the likes of Xavi, Alonso and Villa. Although he hasn't found the net at club level since January, the visit of Finland offers Pedro a great chance to rediscover his shooting boots. Finland player to watch: Mikael Forssell. He may be a shadow of the player who burst onto the English football scene as a teenager with Chelsea at the turn of the century but Forssell remains an important figure for his national team. Just four goals behind Jari Litmanen on Finland's all-time scoring charts, the 32-year-old has a real chance of usurping his country's greatest ever player should he maintain his place in the side for the next couple of years. Forssell is currently back at first club HJK in his homeland - also the last place Litmanen played before retiring - as he looks to rebuild his confidence and form after being released by Leeds United last summer. Still possessing the poacher's brain that saw only Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer, Louis Saha and Ruud van Nistelrooy score more in the Premier League in 2003-04, Forssell has bagged three goals in his last three games for Finland and will be their main attacking threat. Key Battle: David Villa v Niklas Moisander. 'The new Sami Hyypia' is a label that could too easily be assigned to any Finnish player with even half the composure of the former Liverpool man. But one feels that, despite giving up five inches in height to Hyypia, Ajax centre-back Moisander is a fitting heir to both the centre-back berth and the national team captaincy. Moisander came up against a number of members of this Spain team when Ajax played Real Madrid in this season's Champions League group stage, though he will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the 4-1 defeats that befell his side home and away. Moisander may be a threat from set-pieces, but his main task in Gijon will be to keep a hungry David Villa at bay. The Barca frontman has failed to hit the heights he managed before a broken leg kept him out for nearly a year, but has scored in his last two club games against AC Milan and Rayo Vallecano and will be keen to establish himself as Spain's attacking fulcrum once again having been their top scorer in qualifying for the past three major finals. Trivia: Sporting Gijon's Estadio El Molinon is the oldest functioning football ground in Spain. It is believed the first match was played there in 1908, the same year that the Football Association of Finland became a member of FIFA.Stats: Pedro has scored nine national team goals this season and is just five away from the world record of 14, held jointly by Germany's Gerd Muller (1971-72), Brazil's Ronaldo (1996-97) and Netherlands' Patrick Kluivert (1999-00)Odds: Spain are overwhelming favourites with odds of 1.062 on bet365, while the draw is 13.00, Finland are 21.00 and Pedro to continue his scoring form with two or more goals is at 5.00. Prediction: The Spanish will stroll and a goalfest awaits.