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Mar 22, 2013

Spain draws; France takes group lead

France took control of Group I of the World Cup qualifying campaign as it eased to a 3-1 victory over Georgia in Paris on Friday, while Spain was held by Finland 1-1.

With Spain held by Finland, France moved two points clear at the top of the group before the two teams meet at the Stade de France on Tuesday night.

Despite Didier Deschamps' men controlling possession, it took them until first-half stoppage time to take the lead through Olivier Giroud.

But goals early in the second half from the outstanding Mathieu Valbuena and Franck Ribery put them in control before Alexander Kobakhidze got one back for the visitors.

However, there was no joy for the struggling Karim Benzema, who passed up several opportunities to end an international goal drought which stretches back to last June.

At the El Molinon stadium in Gijon, Spain, Sergio Ramos gave Vicente Del Bosque's side the lead shortly into the second half but Teemu Pukki made the most of a rare chance for the visitors to draw level on 78 minutes.

Spain was the far superior side throughout the match but Finland had a clear strategy -- allow its opponent almost exclusive ownership of the ball while making sure it allowed minimal space in the final third.

Their tactic paid off in the first half, limiting their opponents to taking shots from outside the area as they were unable to break down the Finnish defense and create a clear effort of their own through their slick, short passing.

Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Santi Cazorla all saw efforts from outside the area miss the target, while the clearest chance fell to the Arsenal midfielder, who later shot high over the bar after pouncing on a loose ball.

For all of Spain's possession, Finland goalkeeper Nikki Maenpaa only needed to make one proper save in the opening 45 minutes, pushing away an effort from Iniesta.

Del Bosque made one change at the break, taking off Cazorla and bringing on Pedro, but when Spain broke the deadlock on 49 minutes, it had little to do with the substitution.

David Silva sent in a corner and Ramos, making his 100th appearance for Spain and wearing the captain's armband to mark the occasion, rose to head the ball beyond Maenpaa and into the bottom corner.

Although Spain did not create any clear-cut chances that would have seen it increase its lead, it was always in control and a home victory never looked in doubt -- until it got their biggest shock of this World Cup qualifying campaign so far and found themselves level with 12 minutes to go.

Finland broke down the left hand side, and Tim Sparv delivered a low cross into Pukki who was unmarked just outside the six-yard box, and the striker, who spent a year in Spain with Sevilla, shot past Victor Valdes to equalize.

It was the visitors' first shot on target and only their fourth attempt of the evening.

Spain laid siege to the Finland goal in the closing minutes, but failed to score. When the final whistle sounded the Finnish players went wild, celebrating a historic result which saw their country, who have never qualified for a European Championship or a World Cup in their history, hold the holders of both tournaments to a draw away from home.

In Paris, France missed multiple early chances before taking the lead in first-half stoppage time when Valbuena won a free kick and then floated it on to the head of Giroud to flick into the far corner.

France doubled its lead early in the second half with Valbuena doing all the hard work himself this time, controlling Ribery's pass wonderfully before firing a first-time shot beyond the reach of the goalkeeper.

Benzema was clean through in the 55th minute but hit an unconvincing shot at the goalkeeper, but Ribery made no mistake in scoring a third just after the hour mark. Again Valbuena was at the heart of it, playing a beautiful cross-field pass into the Bayern Munich man's path, then watching as he cut inside Zurab Khizanishvili to score at the near post.

Kobakhidze had been Georgia's best player and got a deserved goal 20 minutes from time, even if it came in fortunate circumstances as the ball struck Sakho and sat up for him to lash in from close range.

France probed for a fourth without creating a clean chance, but a solid performance combined with the news from Spain was already enough to make this a highly satisfactory evening.

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