MADRID (AP) – With its defense thinned by injury, Spain is relying on its ability to dominate possession to again blunt a France attack led by Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery in a highly anticipated World Cup qualifier on Tuesday.
Both European powers have won their first two games in Group I, and a second meeting since June will help determine which team should be considered the favorite to claim first place and the automatic berth in the tournament in Brazil.
Spain is without injured center backs Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, while Sergio Ramos is in doubt with muscle problems.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque could be forced to call on little-used Raul Albiol to team up with midfielders Sergio Busquets or Javi Martinez in the center of defense, although Ramos trained on Monday and looks likely to be available.
The world champions have won 24 straight qualifiers dating back to 2007 and enter the game at Vicente Calderon stadium in good form after thrashing Belarus 4-0 on Friday.
''While there are still 15 points up for grabs after this match, it still seems like this matchup with France will prove vital for qualifying,'' Del Bosque said on Monday. ''I want us to prepare with that same mentality. We'll try to field a team that will know how to defend against France without losing initiative to take the ball forward.''
France slumped to a 1-0 loss to Japan in a friendly on Friday with Benzema and Ribery again failing to spark the attack.
''Sure he could play better for the national team, but he tries to be as efficient as possible,'' France coach Didier Deschamps said of Benzema, who has scored just 15 goals in 53 appearances for the national side.
Recent precedents also favor the hosts.
Spain beat France 2-0 in a friendly in 2010 and repeated the same scoreline in the quarterfinals of the European Championship this summer en route to defending its title. Midfielder Xabi Alonso scored both goals as Spain progressed with a comfortable victory, and France coach Laurent Blanc's ineffective defensive tactics cost him his job.
''It's as good a moment to score as any,'' Benzema said on Monday. ''This is just another game, the Euro is over and this is a new team. They're not unbeatable. It's not impossible.''
France replaced Blanc with Deschamps, and the former midfielder says his team will look to improve on its performance by showing more scoring intent this time around, although his defense has been hit by injuries.
''Against Spain you know you are going to suffer a lot,'' Deschamps said from Vicente Calderon stadium. ''France was obligated to defend deep (in Donetsk) because Spain had the ball. Collectively we'll have to defend well and be very efficient in those situations on attack when we have a chance.''
Spain may be thin at the back, but it is loaded in midfield and attack. Playmakers Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Santi Cazorla could all start in midfield, while Del Bosque can either field a traditional striker in Fernando Torres or David Villa, or again opt for Cesc Fabregas in a floating role alongside David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez, who scored a hat trick against Belarus.
Deschamps said his defensive game plan is above all focused on stopping Iniesta, who won the UEFA Best Player in Europe award after guiding Spain to victory in Poland and the Ukraine earlier this year. He also wants his team to show poise in possession to avoid unnecessary turnovers.
''They aren't going to change much,'' Alonso said on Monday. ''It will be fundamental to keep control and get them out of their game plan to create possibilities.''
Also on Tuesday, Belarus hosts Georgia in Group I.
Spain and France lead the group with six points each. Georgia is next with four. Finland has one point, while Belarus has zero.
Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.