'It's in our hands,' says Spain's Cesc Fábregas, despite recent slips. And that's normally a pretty good place for it to be
Vicente del Bosque defined Spain's crisis in stark terms, laying down just what a terrible state they are in: "We have played 22 qualifiers and drawn two," he said. They have won the other 20; they have also, of course, won the European Championship, the World Cup and the European Championship again, an achievement unmatched by any international team in history. Now though there is a chance that Spain may not be in Brazil to defend the World Cup they won in South Africa three years ago.
There will still be three games left after Tuesday night but this is the clash that should decide what happens next. Along with the first meeting between the two teams at the Vicente Calderón, in which France equalised in the dying minutes, it was always likely to be. But the balance of power has tipped away from la Selección and the task before them now is a huge one: they have to beat a fast-improving France at Saint-Denis.
France have to go to Georgia and Belarus before playing Finland at home but few expect them to drop points there. No one expected Spain to drop points against Finland on Friday in Gijón either but that result has changed the complexion of this group: a draw will no longer be sufficient. It is not quite do or die – for the team that finishes second there will still be a play-off place and Fifa may still decide to seed those meetings – but this has, naturally, been billed as the biggest game this generation of Spaniards has played away from a tournament itself.
The 1-1 draw did not just change the mathematics; to a point, it changed the mood too. Failure to beat Finland and Spain are rubbish again. There was a hint of fatigue in Del Bosque's voice as he noted that record of 20 wins from 22. There have been criticisms and questions, debates raised again about Spain's style. Against Finland, the entire game was played within a 25-metre strip way inside the Finnish half but Spain only found a way through once, and that was a header from a corner. Then they were caught the only time Finland ventured out.
In part the result could be explained as a fluke, a freak occurrence. Spain had more than 20 shots; Finland one. Their possession topped 80%. But there was a certain impotence about them, a lack of speed in the way they circulated the ball, and doubts were again raised about the very identity of the national team, and indeed about Del Bosque. In some spheres they were not so much doubts as attacks. They had been lying in wait.
The defence of Spain and Del Bosque was not slow in arriving. In fact, the defence was probably louder and more insistent than the original attacks had been, as if they had imagined a furious assault on the Selección that was mostly marginal. Within the broad brush strokes of a successful identity, some of the questions raised are legitimate ones but there is a tendency towards trenches. The talk was again of Spain's cainismo, its supposed propensity for siblicide, a taste for confrontation and a desire to tear up what works on the basis of a single slip-up.
"This country is bipolar," Gerard Piqué told Lu Martín in El País on Tuesday morning. "Spanish culture says that if you lose a game after doing all that we have done you're in crisis. People were asking if we should be more direct, if we should cross more, shoot more, and you think: have people not understood that it is playing this way that we have won everything? We have spent six or seven years winning in a way that people enjoy, having 70% of possession, generating chances: why would we change that because we have drawn a game? The world wants to play like Spain and we want to change styles? Incredible."
"Football," added Sergio Ramos, "has no memory."
Only it does and other teams do too. At one level at least, Spain are victims of their own success: most opponents simply park the bus. Del Bosque says he prefers that and Ramos echoed his words on Monday: in theory, if the opponents seek only to defend, they attack you less. Spain's challenge is to find a way around that; what is often overlooked is just how difficult it is to do so, however good a side you are. Here, those who want greater variety, a broader mix of attacking threats – Jesús Navas wide perhaps, more presence at centre-forward, the ability to shoot from mid- to long-range – have a point. Certainly against ultra-defensive sides.
France may not park the bus at Saint Denis but Didier Deschamps is aware that Friday changed things: the draw is now a good result for France not Spain. "We won't play for a draw," he said, "but …" Freezing temperatures have also left the pitch in a bad state, a factor which theoretically works against Spain more.
But Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernández will be back in the Spain midfield, and if the last six years have shown anything it is that Spain have tended to respond when it matters. Progress to the 2008 semi-finals was not smooth and included a penalty shoot-out win against Italy; 2010 started with defeat to Switzerland that was consummated in much the same way as the draw with Finland; and penalties were needed against Portugal in 2012. Spain won all three competitions.
On Tuesday night, not only must they win at Saint Denis but they believe they can. "It's in our hands," said Cesc Fábregas. And that's normally a pretty good place for it to be.