The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Defending champion Spain reaches World Cup by winning Group I; France heads to playoffs
ALBACETE, Spain - Defending champion Spain secured its place at the 2014 World Cup by beating Georgia 2-0 Tuesday to automatically advance as winner of Group I in European qualifying, pushing France into the playoffs.
Spain's victory rendered France's 3-0 win against Finland meaningless as Spain needed just one point to secure passage to Brazil.
Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema scored either side of Joona Toivio's own-goal as France advanced to the playoff among the eight best second-place finishers.
Andres Iniesta marked the match played near his hometown by feeding Alvaro Negredo for Spain's first-half opener, and substitute Juan Mata doubled Spain's advantage after the break.
Spain has qualified for every World Cup since 1978, although Vicente del Bosque became only the second coach after Javier Clemente to guide the team to two World Cups.
"It may look practically routine but it's important to remember how successful we've been at qualifying," Del Bosque said. This is not an easy competition."
Spain showed determination to close out qualifying on a high as it dominated 97th-ranked Georgia from the opening whistle, with the front line of Iniesta, Negredo, Pedro Rodriguez, and Jesus Navas leading the way.
Negredo started in place of Michu and caused problems for Georgia's back four throughout.
The Manchester City striker headed off the post before watching goalkeeper Giorgi Loria palm his powerful, acrobatic bicycle volley over goal. In the 26th minute, Pedro floated a deep pass for Iniesta to tap back to Negredo to guide into the top of goal.
Iker Casillas returned to starting lineup for Spain after being replaced by Victor Valdes against Belarus, and the Real Madrid goalie showed no rust in denying efforts from Nikoloz Gelashvili and Jano Ananidze before the break.
Spain enjoyed more than 75 per cent of the possession and never relented at the Carlos Belmonte Stadium as Mata stroked home a loose ball inside the area just three minutes after replacing Pedro.
Spain heads into Brazil looking for an unprecedented fourth straight major title by adding a second World Cup crown to its two European championships.
At Stade de France, Ribery hit a shot with ferocious power into the top right corner in the eighth minute for his fourth goal in three games.
Mathieu Valbuena, Olivier Giroud, and Samir Nasri all came close to adding a second before halftime as the French knew goals were needed to have any chance of finishing top of the group if Spain slipped up.
Those goals came after the restart after Tovio whacked Giroud's 76th-minute header into the roof of goal while trying to clear it off the line.
Benzema converted Ribery's perfectly weighted cross with a well-taken volley with three minutes to play, but France advances to the playoff as it did four years ago when it beat Ireland to reach South Africa. FIFA holds the draw on Monday for next month's playoff.
"That's what we were looking for (confidence). We are much more in control than we were before," France coach Didier Deschamps said. "The players are in really good shape at the moment. I hope nothing happens to any of them and that they'll all be here next month."
Spain topped the group with 20 points to France's 17. Finland had nine points, Georgia finished on five points, and Belarus was last with points.
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