Spain vs. Belarus: Players Under Pressure to Perform
With Spain now locked in a straight-out fight with France to decide who will automatically qualify out of Group I for Brazil 2014, Vicente Del Bosque's reigning European and world champions must seek to demolish Belarus Friday in their penultimate qualifying matchup.
A high-scoring win would all but confirm their progress ahead of second-place France, with Spain currently topping Group I on goal difference with a game in hand. Their advantage is slight, however, with only a difference of two goals separating both teams.
In order to secure first place, La Roja need to collect four points from their remaining two games, the last of which will be another home match against Georgia on October 15.
While neither opponent should trouble the international treble winners, Spain must use these fixtures to ensure that key players still have the correct mindset going into the summer as they seek yet more unprecedented glory.
Before Xavi's era, no other team had ever won three major international tournaments in a row, and automatic qualification would allow Del Bosque to switch his focus onto defending their 2010 World Cup crown.
Retaining their title would extend their record of winning world-class competitions to four, which would surely grant Spain an unassailable position in the history books.
Yet in their Confederations Cup defeat, Spain showed that they could be beaten. Their loss in the final to Brazil also made their need for some new blood and ideas, given the creeping fatigue of body and spirit that finally caught up with them.
Some in the camp may also perhaps now lack the required motivation to win again after six years of triumphs.
With a number of new call-ups and plenty of intrigue surrounding the squad in their run-up to the summer, certain players are under pressure to perform and justify why they should go to Brazil 2014.
Though not all of them will feature in the starting XI, here are four members of the Spanish squad who will be looking to impress Del Bosque against Belarus.
The lack of a credible alternative to Spain's false-nine system was a problem at both the Confederations Cup and 2012 European Championships, with sides dropping deep and shutting down their defences to hold Fabregas and the other attacking midfielders at bay.
A more physical presence up front could have unsettled their opponents and allowed Spain to pose a greater threat on goal.
Having proven an able makeshift striker in the physically demanding Premier League, Michu could be exactly the sort of player his country needs.
Now into his second season at Swansea City, the robust attacker could win his first cap against Belarus but he will be under pressure to prove that he is a better and more dependable option than Roberto Soldado or Alvaro Negredo.
While the former Celta Vigo and Rayo Vallecano man has good, intelligent movement and an obvious eye for goal, an appearance for Spain would be a big test of his abilities.
Should he look pedestrian when placed in such a high-performance environment, he may not enjoy many more chances to bridge the gap between his full-blooded English heroics and the Spanish pinnacle of the international scene.
For that reason, Michu must seize any and all opportunities against Belarus.
Atletico Madrid's Koke looms large over Silva's place in the Spain squad.
Under Diego Simeone, the Los Colchoneros midfield prodigy has begun to blossom into one of the most exciting young players in Spain.
With both Koke and Silva in the squad to face Belarus, it's hard to say who Del Bosque will plump for.
Either way, the pressure will be on Silva, as the senior international, to justify his continued presence over such an exciting prospect and whether he plays or makes way on the bench.
Manchester City's playmaker could well become a victim of a self-conscious need to refresh Spain's makeup after their lack of staying power at the Confederations Cup and meek attacking threat in the early stages of the 2012 European Championships.
A few minor tweaks of personnel and tactics could be all it takes to make the World Cup winners truly great again, and Silva must ensure that he can prove he is too indispensable to Del Bosque to be edited out of the picture.
As another Atletico Madrid star pushing for caps, Juanfran has the perfect opportunity to stake a claim at making the right-back position his own for Spain.
The position is something of a problem area for the squad, with its usual incumbent Alvaro Arbeloa regularly appearing to be the weakest member of the starting XI.
If Juanfran can put in a convincing performance, not only defensively but going forward to supplement Spain's midfielders and attack, he could well replace the more limited Real Madrid full-back in Del Bosque's plans.
This a major chance for Juanfran to put himself in consideration for the summer. He could well be feeling the heat as kick-off approaches, but if he remains calm and is able to perform, he may be the man holding down Spain's right-back position in Brazil.
With Diego Lopez still preferred to Saint Iker at Real Madrid, the pressure upon Spain's captain comes not through his worries over selection for the summer but his concerns for his future at the Bernabeu.
To many, Casillas is an on-the-pitch extension of the club's Ultra Sur fan faction—such is his passion for Real.
As such, he would much rather win back his position at the club from Lopez than have to leave Madrid.
Hence the pressure.
No longer can he be content with his role as the ever-reliable last line of defence, regardless of the victories it has brought his country. Somehow Casillas must use his appearances in a Spain shirt as a platform from which to topple his club rival and reassert his dominance over Real's goal.
Even the slightest of mistakes are no longer acceptable and every save must be perfect, eye-catching and dramatic. Hopefully for Spain's sake, his distractions on the home front don't force him to overthink his vital but mundane job.
Keeping a clean sheet for a team who don't allow their opposition the ball looks like an easy job until you concede.
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