Clinical Spain oust Les Bleus
Spain got their direct qualification hopes back on track as iron belief and tactical nous counted more than individual quality as they deservedly ground their way 1-0 past France in Tuesday's very high quality World Cup qualifier at the Stade de France.
After La Roja's 1-1 draw with Finland in Gijon, Les Bleus came into the game in the Group I driving seat, and Didier Deschamps' young and spirited French side were close to claiming the draw which would have kept them there.
But ultimately, Spain's experience and ability to manage tight games when it really counts saw them through, with Pedro Rodriguez's scrambled second half goal enough to separate the sides.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque, criticised yet again over the weekend at home for not having a plan B to break through packed defences, made four changes to his team, the most important of which were Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso shaking off injury concerns to win their 120th and 107th caps respectively in midfield.
Xavi was quieter than usual, but Alonso was a colossus throughout and, along with 'doble pivote' partner Sergio Busquets, ensured Spain controlled the midfield for most of the game.
France boss Didier Deschamps, who had not lost in six games against Spain as player or coach and out-thought Del Bosque in the 1-1 draw in October's reverse fixture, was more daring with his line-up and teenagers Raphael Varane of Real Madrid and Paul Pogba of Juventus were kept in place for just their second competitive internationals. Varane did little wrong all game, but Pogba showed the impetuousness of youth - in both positive and negative ways.
The home side started positively, looking to press high on Spain's midfield. In-form wideman Mathieu Valbuena sent an ambitious 20-yard bicycle kick over the bar inside the opening seconds, but France were almost caught out early as Andres Iniesta slipped the ball behind the home defence for Nacho Monreal to set up a chance which Xavi spooned over from eight yards. The Arsenal man, in for the injured Jordi Alba, was to make a more telling contribution later.
The game soon settled down with France sitting deep and hoping to break quickly. Finland had stopped Spain by holding their positions and not leaving any gaps to pass through, but France were more likely to come out and battle to win the ball back. This occasionally gave Spain a sight of goal - with Xavi dragging another shot wide - but did more to unsettle the visitors. Del Bosque was unhappy with two heavy challenges - from Blaise Matuidi on Busquets and Christophe Jallet on Iniesta - which could have seen yellow cards but did not.
Spain were even angrier when French keeper Hugo Lloris's feet-first challenge in the box appeared to bring down Pedro, but referee Victor Kassai adjudged it to be no penalty, and an incredulous Xavi was the first name in the book for his protests. The replay suggested it was tight, but Lloris had taken the winger down, and should have seen red.
That scare aside, France were looking comfortable. David Villa was well shackled by Varane and fellow centre-half Laurent Koscielny, and Pogba looked [at that point] calm and assured in midfield, spreading the play cleverly to launch attacks.
An excellent pass over Gerard Pique by Valbuena sent Franck Ribery racing clear, but Victor Valdes, back at the stadium in which he denied Arsenal in Barcelona's 2006 Champions League final win, was quick from his line to make an excellent one-on-one stop with his knee.
The Spanish-based feeling at half-time was that the game was shaping up similar to Spain's knock-out games at recent finals tournaments, where they generally manage their way to a 1-0 win, and this sensation increased as they gradually took control after the break. Lloris went full-stretch to tip over an Iniesta 20-yarder after Xavi had dropped deeper and linked with Alonso. Spain were pressing, and the breakthrough did arrive on 58 minutes.
Monreal again broke down the left wing and scooped a cross towards the back post, where Pedro got ahead of Evra to bundle the ball home from close range, despite Lloris' despairing effort to keep the ball out. It was not overly pretty, but it was the Canary Islander's 10th international goal in eight games this season.
Soon after the goal, the toiling Villa was removed for the pace of Jesus Navas, who proceeded to torment Patrice Evra down France's left side. With Cesc Fabregas soon replacing Pedro, the Sevilla winger had no centre-forward to cross to, but that was not really the point. Navas' job was to sprint to the corner, then play the ball back to Xavi, so Spain could move up the pitch and pin France back - as close to a plan B as Del Bosque deploys.
Deschamps reacted by introducing winger Jeremy Menez for midfielder Laurent Cabaye and pushing more players forward. They began to threaten and, with Ribery to the fore, won a series of corners. Varane almost scored from one, but Monreal was in the right place again to scramble the ball away.
As time ticked away the home side's inexperience, and growing frustration, was shown by Pogba's head-high challenge on Alonso, which brought a yellow. The Juventus midfielder had played very well to that point, but a late stamp on Xavi just seconds later brought another deserved booking, and France were down to 10 men for the last 12 minutes.
The Stade de France crowd was also unhappy with how things were going, and Karim Benzema - with no goals in 12 internationals now - was whistled off when Deschamps replaced him with Moussa Sissoko.
Even with ten men, France did come close to an equaliser when Ribery - their best player on the night - cut inside from the left wing and sent a low 20-yarder just wide. Valdes was again required late on to claw away Evra's close range from Valbuena's free kick.
But Spain held out this time. The late equalisers conceded in their first meeting with France, and then against Finland on Friday, had backed them into a corner, but Del Bosque and his side kept their heads when there was more on the line, and many around them were losing their's.
Pique had talked pre-game about the "bipolar" character of many Spanish fans and pundits, and their tendency to massively over-react to defeats, but the veteran boss as usual ignored critics' knee-jerk calls for change and calmly stuck to his preferred team and shape - and the players came through for him yet again.
It was Spain's first ever competitive win in France, and only Les Bleus fourth ever World Cup qualifying home defeat [two of which came in the ill-fated autumn of 1993 under Gerard Houllier]. It also sent Spain back on top of Group I, a point ahead of their neighbours to the north, with both teams having three games left to play.
Neither country now has another qualifier until September, when Spain travel to Finland, before finishing their campaign with a home double-header against Belarus and Georgia. France will likely need to take full points from a [slightly] tougher schedule, away in Georgia and Belarus in September, and then at home to Finland, while hoping for a Spanish slip-up.
That looks unlikely at this stage. "It is in our hands," said Fabregas before the game, when asked if Spain were worried about becoming the first World Cup holders not to defend their trophy at the next finals. And a safe pair of hands they are.