Spain are set to host Albania in a Group G encounter of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers in a tie that may ensure La Roja‘s entry into the group stage.

The mood within the Spain camp might be dampened a bit by the political situation surrounding the Catalan call for independence. But, the stage is set for La Roja to all but confirm their entry into the group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup – an important step towards re-establishing their foothold in world football.

Spain sit comfortably atop Group G with 22 points to their name. Undefeated and with a positive goal difference of 29, they are almost ensured of a berth in the group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which they can all but secure with a win against Albania.

The Albanians have fared well but are set to fall short of qualification. Still, third in the group behind Spain and Italy, their national football team has shown a real progress in the recent times and can still have some say in the matter, if they do manage to upset Spain in their own backyard.

We at The Hard Tackle take a closer look at the fixture.

Team News & Tactics

Spain

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Gerard Pique’s choice to vote in the Catalan independence referendum. But, Julen Lopetegui is likely to still pick the Barcelona man to start alongside Sergio Ramos in the centre of the defence.

Alvaro Morata has been nursing an injury and is unlikely to be risked for the match against Albania, which could pave the way for Rodrigo or Iago Aspas to start upfront. David De Gea is expected to be the undisputed first-choice in goal again while Jordi Alba, who has been a regular under Lopetegui, is also likely to retain his spot on the left side of the defence.

Dani Carvajal is also a player who will not feature against Albania after a contracting a viral infection, with his recovery date still unknown. The midfield, though, is rich with superstars and it will be interesting to see the combination the manager uses on the day.

All eyes will be on the rising star Marco Asensio, who has already taken European football by storm, and whether he gets a run out against Albania, with more senior players like Pedro and Jose Callejon present in the squad.

Lopetegui has continued the possession football philosophy but has added another dimension of quick counter attacks as well. The presence of pacy forwards has enabled him to make the adjustment and it would be interesting to see if the absence of Morata hinders their ability on the counter.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): De Gea; Azpilicueta, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Thiago, Busquets, Iniesta; Silva, Aspas, Pedro

Albania

Christian Panucci has his work cut out ahead of the fixture against Spain. Thomas Strakosha is out with injury, which all but ensures a start for Etrit Berisha in goal. The manager has called up just two centre forwards for the latest set of fixtures – Armando Sadiku and Sokol Cikalleshi.

While Sadiku has usually been the manager’s preference, Cikalleshi could also earn a start in attack in an attempt to freshen up the options. Taulant Xhaka could also be given a start in the pivot role in the 4-2-3-1 formation. But, it will be interesting to see who among Andi Lila and Burim Kukeli gives way to the FC Basel man.

Albania have always performed well and have been adapting a more possession based game as well. However, against Spain, the visitors are likely to look for open spaces and opportunities to counter the aggression coming from the home side.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Berisha; Hysaj, Ajeti, Mavraj, Agolli; Xhaka, Lila; Roshi, Hyka, Llullaku; Cikalleshi

Key Stats

1. Spain have only met with Albania once in international football, that too in the earlier fixture of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, with La Roja coming up trumps with a 2-0 scoreline.

2. Spain have scored at least two goals in all but one of the group matches so far – a 1-1 draw against Italy.

3. With Diego Costa not present in the squad and Alvaro Morata unlikely to take the field, David Silva has the opportunity to become Spain’s top scorer in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers – all three are currently tied at 5.

4. There have been atleast 3 goals or more in each of Spain’s last five matches.

5. With a superior goal difference of +17, Spain can secure their place in the group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup with a win over Albania.

Player To Watch

Gerard Pique

Hoping for a calm environment up in the stands. (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)

Hoping for a calm environment up in the stands. (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

Much has been made of his off-pitch comments. But, Pique has been a consummate professional on the field for Spain in each of his performances for the national football team. And, if Lopetegui selects him in the starting eleven, it will be interesting to see how he is received by the home crowd and how he reacts on the pitch to any jeering from the crowd.

Prediction

Spain 4-0 Albania

Expect a dominant performance from Spain to confirm their place in the group stage of the World Cup. Lopetegui would want his team to issue a statement to the rivals with a worthy display on Friday. And, with the current political scenario, a mesmerising display could be something that acts as a therapeutic experience to the onlookers.

A David Silva special has become ordinary business recently and we can also expect fireworks from Marco Asensio, if he is afforded some time on the pitch.