Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Spain's World Cup place hinges on a goal feast

Spain's hopes of avoiding a potentially awkward playoff to make the World Cup soccer finals in Germany next year depend on tonight's performances by Group Seven's top three teams: Serbia & Montenegro, Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Luis Aragonés' team must win against San Marino (Antena 3, 8:30pm) to make sure of at least second place in the group. But to lead the standings, and therefore avoid a two-game playoff series against other possible group runners-up such as France, Russia or Turkey, Spain depends on Serbia & Montenegro losing at home to Bosnia-Herzegovina - the first time the two countries have played each other in Belgrade.

If Bosnia wins - assuming that Spain beats lowly San Marino -, Spain will win the group and automatic qualification. If there is a tie in the Serbian capital, Spain will have the same number of points as Serbia & Montenegro, and the goal difference will be used to decide the group winner. If Raúl González and company can win by a five-goal margin, a tie in the other match would be enough for Spain to top the group.

"I am confident about Bosnia because they have a chance of making the World Cup, and they will give it their all," said Spain's Iván de la Peña on arriving at Rimini in Italy on Tuesday.

The shaven-headed midfielder seemed set to be included in an unusually attack-minded formation from coach Aragonés. Arsenal's José Antonio Reyes and striker David Villa have been practicing with the first team alongside the usual forward pairing of Raúl and Fernando Torres. After starting nine qualifying matches with both Joaquín Sánchez and Vicente Rodríguez on the team, Aragonés has finally decided to discard the two wingers and opt for the more versatile duo of Reyes and De la Peña behind the strikers.

The obvious reasons are Spain's urgent need for goals and San Marino's knack for allowing goals, 34 in nine matches, including five scored by Spain in Almería earlier this year. Villa is now the Spanish league's top scorer with six goals, while Reyes turned Spain's game against Belgium last Saturday. He was sent on as a second-half substitute and promptly assisted Torres' two goals to give Spain the 2-0 win.


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