MADRID (AP) — Spain hosts Sweden on Sunday in a winner-take-all showdown in Seville for a ticket to next year’s World Cup.
After seven games, the two sides are separated by one point at the top of their qualifying group.
Spain only needs a draw to finish atop Group B and ensure its 12th consecutive appearance at soccer’s showpiece event, while second-place Sweden must win at La Cartuja Stadium to leapfrog the hosts.
Only the group winners automatically qualify for the 2022 tournament in Qatar. The second-place finisher faces a playoff with the nine other runners-up and two group winners from the UEFA Nations League to decide the final three European spots.
Sweden got the better of Spain twice in recent months. It held Spain to a scoreless draw at the same stadium in the European Championship’s group stage in June. Jan Andersson’s Sweden then beat Spain 2-1 in their first World Cup qualifying clash in September.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not on Sweden’s squad for either of those two games. The 40-year-old star will be available Sunday, although Andersson would not reveal if Ibrahimovic will start.
“I have actually a lot of good offensive players. Zlatan is one of them, as is (Aleksander) Isak, (Dejan) Kulusevski, and (Kristoffer) Olsson,” Andersson said. “So no matter who plays tomorrow we can attack good even against Spain.”
Spain coach Luis Enrique said that Ibrahimovic would make Sweden more dangerous in the long balls that he can win, but that without him Sweden remained dangerous with its speed on the counterattack.
“We will be prepared to do what we can to keep (Ibrahimovic) in check, even though that is impossible to do always,” Luis Enrique said.
Spain has several injured players, including Manchester City winger Ferran Torres, its top scorer in qualifying with four goals in six appearances. Also unavailable are Pedri González, Marcos Llorente, Mikel Oyarzabal, Eric García and Gerard Moreno, all players who helped Spain reach the semifinals at the European Championship.
Spain had been playing catchup in the group behind Sweden since losing in Stockholm. But Georgia’s shock 2-0 victory over Sweden on Thursday combined with Spain’s 1-0 win over Greece put Spain back on top before their decider.
Against Greece, Luis Enrique let Espanyol striker Raúl de Tomás make his debut in the starting lineup, but it fell to midfielder Pablo Sarabia to score the game’s only goal from a penalty kick.
Luis Enrique also left holding midfielder and team captain Sergio Busquets on the bench until the last 25 minutes, apparently to reduce the risk of a booking that would have knocked Busquets out of the game against Sweden for an accumulation of yellow cards. The Barcelona veteran should be back in the starting 11 on Sunday.
Despite Spain’s recent stumbles against Sweden, Luis Enrique has no plans to waver from his possession-based style.
“I believe we are in a situation we would have signed off on at the start of the competition, to play at our stadium with our fans and needing just a draw,” coach Luis Enrique said. “But tomorrow is going to be difficult … You only have to look at our most recent games against Sweden to see how tough it is for us to score against them.”
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