Soccer

Spain closing in on World Cup qualification

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MADRID (AP)

World Cup holder Spain hosts Georgia knowing a win or a draw will put it into the 2014 tournament as Group I winners.

The European champions are three points above France, which face Finland, going into the last round of games. A draw will suffice for Spain to finish as group winners, which assures automatic qualification for Brazil. The second-place team must advance through the playoffs.

Here are 5 things to know about Tuesday's match:

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PARKING THE BUS

Few opponents are willing to open up and attack Spain for the risk of being routed, and that has left Spain laboring for victories against ultra-defensive, inferior opponents. For all of its creative playmakers, Spain has struggled to score and Michu's first international appearance against Belarus on Friday failed to provide the spark.

Spain coach Vicente del Bosque brought on Alvaro Negredo, who scored the eventual winner in the 2-1 win.

Talk of Brazilian-born, Spanish-nationalized striker Diego Costa joining the squad continues to grow. But Del Bosque expects his players to find solutions on the field, not in the possibilities of what could be.

''We need to take more shots from outside the area, to try and find each other more often, or open up our play through the wings,'' Del Bosque said.

If Negredo doesn't start, Cesc Fabregas could again be called upon against Georgia as a ''false nine,'' just as he was at last year's European Championship.

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PLAYOFFS AGAIN?

France is vying to reach a fifth straight World Cup, but it will need to thrash Finland and hope Spain loses to stand a chance of winning the group.

The last time France failed to reach the World Cup was in 1994 when, needing a single point from home games against Israel and Bulgaria, it lost both. Current coach Didier Deschamps was the distraught team captain then.

''It must have been horrible. A World Cup without France,'' France defender Eric Abidal said. ''We're all in the same boat, I hope it reaches Brazil.''

Because of its mediocre ranking of 25th, France is unlikely to be among the seeded teams when the draw is made. Sweden and Croatia are already assured of reaching the playoffs.

''It does change things because it means you will come up against a big team. We know it will be difficult,'' the 34-year-old Abidal said.

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FROM BAD TO WORSE

Iker Casillas' relegation to the bench seems to indicate Victor Valdes will be Spain's starting goalkeeper on the road to Brazil.

Valdes has been stellar in what is likely his last season at Barcelona. Casillas, meanwhile, has played only 105 minutes for Real Madrid this season.

A Spanish TV program captured Casillas reportedly discussing his situation with teammate Pepe Reina, with the report suggesting he had accepted his predicament with disillusionment. (Reina denies the conversation.)

''My decision (to start Valdes) doesn't mean anything,'' Del Bosque said. ''I'm not saying that he will or won't play the next game, but this is how we will treat the situation.''

Valdes made his 18th appearance for Spain against Belarus, while Casillas has earned a record 150 caps for his country.

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VALBUENA OR NASRI?

The re-emergence of Samir Nasri in the France midfield gives coach Didier Deschamps a headache.

Nasri, who was banned for three matches after last year's European Championship for insulting a journalist, has been excellent in his return. He was one of France's best players in the 6-0 rout of Australia on Friday, playing behind striker Olivier Giroud in a playmaker's role and setting up one of Giroud's two goals.

But playing Nasri likely means dropping Mathieu Valbuena, who, along with Franck Ribery, has been one of France's best players over the past year.

''The coach wanted to rest me against Australia and have a look at something else,'' Valbuena said. ''It's not up to me to say whether it's unfair or not.''

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A HERO'S WELCOME

Andres Iniesta is enjoying a quiet start to the season, but there will be no calm when he takes to the field at the Carlos Belmonte Stadium.

Iniesta, who was born in the nearby village of Fuentealbilla, invested nearly 250,000 euros ($340,000) in his hometown club to save it from the drop after it failed to pay its players.

''Without a doubt it will be very special,'' said Iniesta, who is marking the occasion at his local vineyard by offering a package that includes a special tour, wine tasting session and tickets for the game.

Iniesta, who made his Spain debut at the stadium in 2006, can also help secure another contract for Del Bosque, who is reportedly set to sign a two-year extension once Spain qualifies for the World Cup. That would leave Del Bosque, who has been in charge since 2008, leading the defending champion's drive to win an unprecedented third straight European Championship in 2016.

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AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report from Paris.

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Follow Paul Logothetis on Twitter (at)PaulLogoAP

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