Spain scrape to victory against France

High-profile clash between Spain and France in Group I ends with a slim win for the reigning World Cup champions.

    Spain scrape to victory against France
    Rodriguez (R-not the boy) celebrates the only goal of the game with his teammates at the Stade de France [Reuters]

    Pedro Rodriguez bundled home the winner as Spain beat France 1-0 Tuesday to reclaim first place in their World Cup qualifying group. 

    Spain had drawn their past two matches to fall two points behind in Group I, but Pedro settled a fiercely contested match in the 58th minute after being left unmarked to meet Ignacio Monreal's cross from the left.

    France midfielder Paul Pogba was sent off in the 78th after collecting a second yellow card for going in late on Xavi Hernandez. Pogba sarcastically applauded the referee, but coach Didier Deschamps was not amused and blanked Pogba as he walked past.

    Striker Karim Benzema had a poor game and was jeered by the home crowd when he was substituted, as his barren spell for France reached 12 games. 

    Spain had slipped up to a surprising 1-1 home draw with Finland while France beat Georgia 3-1 on Friday to take over first place.

    Deschamps kept 19-year-old center half Raphael Varane in his lineup and paired him with Laurent Koscielny, who was rested against Georgia as he was under risk of suspension, while the 20-year-old Pogba started in midfield alongside Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye.

    Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso returned to strengthen Spain's midfield. Xavi should have put Spain ahead in the fifth minute when he blazed wide from six meters with the goal wide open.

    Spain then enjoyed a long spell of possession as France soaked up the pressure, before hitting back with a quick counterattack as Christophe Jallet sped down the right flank and squared the ball to Benzema on the edge of the area. But he was quickly closed down and his shot went over. 

    The Spanish jumped up in outrage in the 31st when Pedro went to ground under a challenge from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, but referee Viktor Kassai waved away claims for a foul. Replays showed that Pedro started to fall down before Lloris made contact, with the Tottenham 'keeper's knee knocking against the Barcelona forward's leg.

    Giroud chants

    France's best chance of the first half fell to winger Franck Ribery as he latched onto Valbuena's superb lofted pass and showed great dexterity to head the ball past Gerard Pique and sped goalward. But Ribery's second touch was slightly too heavy and he was running out of space by the time he reached the penalty area, and 'keeper Victor Valdes smothered his shot with Ribery poking the ball at full stretch.

    Pockets of fans at Stade de France chanted for substitute Olivier Giroud to come on after Benzema whacked a hopeful shot skywards.

    The Spanish took time to get back into gear in the second half but started pulling France out of position with their intricate passing moves and Andres Iniesta shot narrowly past the top corner after being teed up on the edge of the penalty area by Sergio Busquets' pass.

    Moments earlier, David Villa, Spain's all-time leading scorer, took a theatrical tumble as he ran onto an overhit pass and that earned him a sarcastic pat on the head from Koscielny as he walked past the forward, who was sitting upright claiming a spot kick.

    Pedro was the sharper forward and he broke the deadlock by bundling the ball in past Lloris from close range after ghosting in unmarked. Lloris clawed at the ball but it was way over the line before he scooped it out.

    France broke straight up the field and Ribery shook off his marker brilliantly before presenting Matuidi with a great chance, but he almost squashed the ball with his foot and his lame shot was too easy for Valdes.

    But it was Ribery who remained France's biggest threat, and from a jinking run he earned a corner in the 75th. Valbuena floated it over from the left, Valdes came to claim the ball and missed, and Varane scrambled to get the ball only to poke it wide. 

    Ribery went close with another drive and left back Patrice Evra forced Valdes into a point-blank save as France pushed for a goal.



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