It is the third of eight matches that Spain will play in Group I, but the coach Vicente del Bosque has described it as being more akin to the first leg of a cup semi-final. France travel to the Vicente Calderón stadium in Madrid on Tuesday night, while Spain travel to the Stade de France in March 2013. Awaiting them on the other side is a place at the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014. Since 2006, the holders are not guaranteed qualification. This game will do much to define whether Spain are there to defend their title.

Between them, France and Spain have won the last three European Championships and two of the last four World Cups, but only one will automatically qualify for 2014. The other will have to finish among the best eight second-placed teams and win a play-off. Spain knocked France out of Euro 2012 at the quarter-final stage; France are the last side to knock Spain out of a major competition, when Zinedine Zidane led them to victory en route to the 2006 World Cup final.

Georgia, Finland and Belarus complete the group, but when the draw was made few doubted that first place would be contested between Spain and France. After both won their opening two games, that feeling has been enhanced. "After the game, one of the two teams will be well on course for qualification," Del Bosque said at Spain's Las Rozas headquarters. "This is like a cup tie that needs to be overcome. There will still be 15 points to play for after this game but the double clash with France is vital."

Asked if this was the key game of the group, the striker David Villa noted: "It is one of the two, with the other one [in France]. Winning this would be a very big step against a powerful opponent."

Spain's previous game, in Belarus on Friday night, was not broadcast on national television, the first time the team had gone unwatched since 1981, but this match will be. The last of the tickets went on sale at the Calderón on Monday morning. There is much at stake and, as Alvaro Arbeloa noted during Euro 2012: "The rivalry [between France and Spain] is historic, it goes back centuries." The latest clash was just four months ago, when Spain beat France for the first time in a competitive match.

"We know each other very well," said Xabi Alonso, who scored both goals that night in Donetsk. France, though, have changed since the summer, with Didier Deschamps taking over as coach from Laurent Blanc and opting for a more athletic approach. Del Bosque described Yohan Cabayé as the most creative player that the French have in their midfield. "He's the one that moves the team, plays the passes and takes the free-kicks, the man with the most talent," the Spain coach said. "He's like their Xavi."

"We have no reason to play with fear," the France striker Karim Benzema insisted, but there is a certain pessimism about Les Bleus. Spain have not lost a qualifying game since defeats against Northern Ireland and Sweden in October 2006 brought a decisive shift to a new identity. Since then they have won 28 and drawn one, including a run of 24 successive victories.

Spain's successful style is now non-negotiable but there are doubts at the back and up front. "We will try to protect ourselves," Del Bosque said, "but the idea will still be to have the ball and try to attack them." The solution at both ends of the pitch may prove the same: more midfielders.

Spain are without the injured Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué. Del Bosque moved Sergio Busquets into the middle of defence alongside Sergio Ramos in Minsk, leaving Alonso as the lone defensive midfielder and opening up a place for Santi Cazorla. Now, Del Bosque may even be without Ramos as well – although having missed Sunday's session he did train with the team on Monday evening. "I will not run any risk with Ramos," the coach insisted.

Despite the return to fitness of Villa and the return to form of Fernando Torres, Del Bosque also opted for an additional midfielder up front against Belarus, with Cesc Fábregas again occupying the false No9 role. "One thing's for sure," the coach said, "we can't get all of our midfielders on [in midfield]. There are so many good ones – and that's before talking about the ones that are not here like Isco or Thiago. But the more good players we can have, the better."

"I think that the false No9 is relative anyway," Fábregas added. "I play as a No9, even if as a midfielder I naturally tend to drop a little deeper." Statistics show that Spain are scoring more goals without a recognised striker than with one.