England Under-21s face a tough trip to Nancy next week after their first leg play-off draw against France at White Hart Lane.
Anthony Le Tallec, the Sunderland striker on loan from Liverpool, scored the opener to put his country in the driving seat to reach next year's European Championship finals tournament.
Although Carlton Cole and Darren Bent had chances in front of a record crowd for England at this level, Le Tallec's strike looked to be the difference until Darren Ambrose's late strike.
Le Tallec, 21, set strike partner Jimmy Briand away just after the interval and then latched onto the return pass to finish past Anfield team-mate Scott Carson. But for Ambrose's leveller, France might have been virtually assured victory.
The ingredients to put England in command were there, boss Peter Taylor had the fortune of a sympathetic senior coach in Sven-Goran Eriksson to allow Kieran Richardson and Bent to help England.
Despite their efforts - and a stunning goalline clearance from Ronald Zubar - the hosts now need at least a goal on Tuesday.
Ryan Taylor and James Milner in particular initially offered a threat from the right.
Taylor, the Wigan right-back, looked comfortable deputising for his Newcastle namesake Steven, and also added his huge throw to England's attacking options.
He linked well with Milner, and left-back Gael Clichy looked troubled early on, the Arsenal youngster fortunate to escape a booking when he fouled as the Aston Villa midfielder raced down the wing.
It was France, however, who had the first real shot on goal. Julien Faubert tried his luck from long distance but Carson was equal to the tame 11th-minute effort.
Franck Ribery was at the heart of most of France's attacks, and he showed superb touch to trick Taylor before setting off on a run down the left wing. After exchanging passes with Briand, the Marseille playmaker's cross was cleared. England had been warned.
Both sides were intent on attacking in an attempt to gain the first advantage in the tie. Bent had a shot parried away superbly after a chasing a long ball, while Richardson offered plenty of energy from his centre-midfield berth.
The Manchester United youngster, however, was frustrated after a couple of passes went astray and was booked in the 20th minute for a foul on Jeremy Toulalan.
The France midfielder appeared to have an ankle injury and had to replaced by Etienne Didot midway through the first half because of the nasty challenge.
The 21-year-old Richardson then set up Chelsea striker Cole for his first effort on goal when he weighted a pass perfectly on the left. Cole checked onto his favoured right foot but could not curl his shot around Jermey Gavanon.
In the thick of the action, Richardson had to be alert at the other end on the half-hour mark when Tom Huddlestone lost the ball.
Briand collected and fed Ribery on the left and his cross was met by Le Tallec, only for Richardson to clear on the line.
Le Tallec had another chance five minutes from half-time when he raced on to a clever back heel from Briand, but he blazed over.
Le Tallec, however, made no mistake after the interval, stabbing home in the 46th minute after he had released Briand on the right and raced into the penalty area.
England responded with a Milner volley a minute later which Gavanon did well to hold but Le Tallec had a taste for the action.
He almost doubled the lead in the 55th minute, sending a free-kick just wide of Carson's goal after Dawson had fouled Briand.
France were now full of confidence, Ribery searing into the penalty area after cutting in from the left but running out of pitch, with England on the back foot and struggling to forge attacks.
Dawson earned himself a booking by hauling down Briand as the striker turned at pace, the Spurs centre-back fortunate the incident was not further up the pitch.
England almost levelled but for a stunning a clearance off the line from Zubar. Cole raced onto Peter Whittingham's superb pass and headed past the `keeper, only for Zubar to race back and clear when most of the crowd expected a goal.
Bent then had another chance but volleyed over, this time after getting set up by Huddlestone but it was not until Ambrose struck that parity was restored.
The Charlton midfielder levelled with three minutes remaining, stabbing home after substitute Dean Ashton's scuffed shot.