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Soccer-Spain close to qualification after win in Finland

Reuters

* Spain extend lead over France to three points

* French held to 0-0 draw in Georgia (Adds quotes, details)

HELSINKI, Sept 6 (Reuters) - Holders Spain eased to the brink of qualification for next year's World Cup finals when Jordi Alba and Alvaro Negredo struck either side of halftime in a 2-0 win away to Finland in Group I on Friday.

The comfortable victory in Helsinki stretched the world and European champions' lead over France at the top of the group to three points with two matches remaining after the French could only manage a 0-0 draw against Georgia in Tbilisi.

Finland had a couple of half-decent early chances at a packed Olympic stadium before Cesc Fabregas chipped the ball over the defence in the 19th minute and Alba took one touch before firing between the legs of goalkeeper Niki Maenpaa.

As the home side pressed further forward late in the game, Xavi released Jesus Navas on the right and he squared the ball to fellow substitute and Manchester City team mate Negredo who clipped it high into the net four minutes from time.

Finland, third in the group and five points behind France, came closest to scoring in the 12th minute when Iker Casillas saved with his feet after the ball bounced off team mate Sergio Ramos.

"It was a tricky match," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said in a pitchside interview with Spanish television broadcaster Telecinco.

"Not because of any great quality in their team but because they made it very difficult for us to get forward and find space," he added.

"We were attacking into very restricted spaces while every time they broke forward they created a certain amount of danger.

"The most important thing for us tonight was to get three vital points and I think that all the players did their jobs.

"We have a three-point lead now and we are in a great position to qualify."

Spain have 14 points from six matches and play their final two qualifiers at home to Belarus and Georgia next month. They are already assured of at least a place in the playoffs and will secure a spot at the finals if they beat the former on Oct. 11.

France play Belarus in Gomel on Friday before hosting Finland on Oct. 15, when Spain are at home to Georgia.

IMPORTANT STEP

Del Bosque sprung something of a surprise in his starting lineup in Helsinki by deploying Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke at right back instead of Alvaro Arbeloa.

He also kept faith with captain and goalkeeper Casillas, who made his 150th appearance for his country, despite the 32-year-old being out of favour at his club Real Madrid and Victor Valdes showing fine early-season form for Barcelona.

With Xavi pulling the strings in midfield, Spain dominated in customary fashion and made light of a slew of injuries to key players, including Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Isco.

However, until Negredo made the game safe there was a lingering sense Finland might snatch a late equaliser, as they did in the 1-1 draw in the qualifier in Gijon in March.

"The game was there to be killed off and we didn't want a repeat of what happened against them at home," Negredo, who joined City from Sevilla in the close season, told Telecinco.

"Maybe they were pushing forward a bit more than in that match and we found some more space and created plenty of chances," he added.

"But we are very happy because it's an important step towards qualification. We are more relaxed after this but we have to keep winning." (Writing by Iain Rogers in Madrid, editing by Ed Osmond)

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