| David Villa and Juan Mata, in Gijon, on Thursday |
Gijon: David Villa’s return to something close to his best in recent weeks is good news for Spain as they prepare for their World Cup Group I qualifiers against Finland and France.
The world and European champions’ record marksman, with 53 goals in 86 appearances, broke his leg at the Club World Cup in December 2011 and struggled for goals and fitness after returning to action at the start of this season.
The 31-year-old Barcelona forward scored a fine goal in this month’s Champions League comeback against AC Milan and struck again against Rayo Vallecano in La Liga at the weekend when he also assisted two goals for Lionel Messi.
“The change in Villa is the joy, the optimism he exudes at the moment,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said on Thursday.
“Fortunately he has recovered and we have the best scorer in Spanish football back,” he told a news conference previewing Friday’s game against Finland in Gijon.
“He felt himself a bit sidelined because he wasn’t playing as much but you have to take into account that he was coming back from a serious injury. I hope that now he will give us what we expect of him.”
Villa was an automatic starter for Del Bosque at the 2010 World Cup but without him at Euro 2012 the coach alternated between playing Fernando Torres as a lone striker and using Cesc Fabregas as a roving forward.
Villa’s return adds another attacking option to a team who have swept all before them since winning Euro 2008 when he was top scorer in the tournament with four goals.
“I have played a few games from the start recently and the team has managed to win so I am pleased with that,” the former Valencia player told Thursday’s news conference.
“I have been looking for this consistency for a long time. What I want is to enjoy myself and finish the season well, which has had plenty of ups and downs.”
With seven points apiece after four Group F matches, both Portugal and Israel trail Russia by five points, and the winners of Friday’s encounter will give themselves a leg up in the race for the bracket’s play-off berth.
Spain and France, who drew 1-1 in Madrid in October and meet in Paris on Tuesday, are level on seven points at the top of the group after three matches, with Spain in first place thanks to a superior goal difference.
France are behind Spain only on goal difference and welcome Georgia to Paris.
“It’s a turning point, undoubtedly,” France striker Olivier Giroud said. “If we’re still ahead of Spain after these two matches, we will have cause for hope.”
The road to Brazil is smoother for the Netherlands. They will be looking to maintain their perfect record when the Group D leader host lowly Estonia.
Germany have experienced one setback in Group C — a draw — but have a threepoint lead as they host a Kazakhstan side with just one point.
England are in the weakest position of the leading teams, sitting two points behind Montenegro in Group H, but playing San Marino, who are without a point.
Facing Georgia should be an opportunity for France’s misfiring strikers to find the net, if they can breach their expected ultradefensive opponents.
Karim Benzema has not scored in his past 10 matches for France, while Olivier Giroud has scored only twice in 15 appearances.
“For me it’s a bit difficult and Karim prefers playing centre forward,” Giroud said. “But in a match where we have to score goals then why not pair us together?”
In Group C, Germany aren’t even likely to deploy a striker against Kazakhstan, with Mario Gomez the only recognizable striker in the squad and Mario Goetze being considered for a Spainstyle “false nine” role.
Germany have a three point lead over the Swedes, who can be overtaken by Ireland if they lose to Giovanni Trapattoni’s side on Friday.
In Group H, England’s match against San Marino, who have only ever won one match and are jointbottom of the Fifa rankings, is a chance for the injury ravaged defence to play together before the tougher test at Montenegro on Tuesday.