France hosted Spain last night in a game that Spain needed to win in order to re-assure themselves that their most recent results are no sign of a dip in form. Duly, Spain delivered.
With the 1-1 draw in Spain in October, France certainly looked equal to Spain, an immediate improvement from their performance against the same opposition during the Euros 2012, when a lacklustre France were beaten by the later tournament winners, 2-0. The situation ahead of the game saw France with 10 points ahead of Spain (8 points) topping the table of group i after 4 matches a-piece and with 3 games to go. Victory for France would increase the gap to 5 points, making direct qualification for Spain a difficult task to accomplish. France on the other hand, with Belarus, Georgia to play away and Finland at home in October, could only lose their first place with insipid performances.
The game kicked off with France taking the initiative and Valbuena attempting a scissor kick after only 20 seconds. It could have gone all wrong for France as early as the 5. minute when Xavi missed an open goal. Soon after, Spain took the initiative and it showed in the statistics: the World Cup holders had almost 80% possession! France relied on counter attacks and one of them almost paid off when Karim Benzema fired wide after a nice move initiated by Mathieu Valbuena found Christophe Jallet on the left. His pass found the Real striker but unfortunately he continued his poor form for his country. Benzema’s run without scoring has been extended to 13 games, posing urgent questions over Didier Deschamps team selection.
Almost on the return it was again Xavi who put the ball just wide of Lloris goal. The French keeper saw the ball late and did hardly move when Xavi shot. After these early exchanges, the game settled and Spain had total control of ball and opponent. Their constant movement looked slow and tiring but was always sharp and always menacing. It was the exact definition of what the Germans often negatively describe as ‘Rasenschach.’ The figures move according to a pattern, yet nothing appears to be rigid. The tactical set up was fluid and allowed much variation. And Spain were forced to probe and vary continuously as France played a relatively high defensive line. Given the fast wingers, this seemed dangerous but Spain did not exploit the space behind the French defenders.
For neutral observers the game looked well asleep and it was a timid affair until Franck Ribery was put through by Valbuena once more. Alas a poor second touch which allowed Spain to recover in time and Victor Valdez saved.
In the seoncd half France started similar to the first: being the more active team, creating space; yet they were not rewarded. Instead, it was Spain who had a great opportunity to go ahead through Iniesta after 54 minutes. His shot with the outside of his left boot went wide but was nonetheless a warning signal for France and a wake up call for his team mates.
It was 4 minutes later that Spain got what they craved and certainly deserved. A cross to the left was underestimated by Jallet and Nacho Monreal had plenty of space to cross. Pedro connected, Lloris got a hand on the ball but in it went nonetheless. The goal looked somewhat scrappy and defied the sublime passing game of Spain. Nonetheless, it was not against the run of play, nor was it undeserved.
Soon after, David Villa went off and replaced by Jesus Naval whose pace put Patrice Evra to the sword time and again. Luckily for France, no one was in the centre for his crosses and passes as the only centre forward, had gone off. The goal certainly demanded a reaction by Deschamps. He did not react, rather he let the game carry on, seeing his team pushed back, losing too many balls in midfield. His critics will certainly start asking why he did not bring on Olivier Giroud immediately and not only in the 92nd minute, when the game was beyond the reach of the Equipe Tricolor.
When he finally reacted, bringing on Menez for Cabaye, France briefly had more urgency going forward but were vulnerable at the back for Spanish counter attacks. Their biggest chance came after a corner from the left. Varane’s header front close range was superbly saved by Valdez. Only a minute later, it was certainly game over for the hosts as Paul Pogba collected his 2nd yellow card within 4 minutes. Yet, the disadvantage did not appear to be too grave as Spain did not tear France apart as a result.
France had another point blank header from Evra saved 4 minutes from time. When finally Benzema was substituted he left the pitch under loud boos from the crowd; a treatment he did not deserve and a gesture surely aimed at Deschamps’ inability to react quicker and revive his team.
The statistical figures for this match, possibly looked similar to the Spain – Finland match where Finland had 18% possession, 0 corners. France fared slightly better, having 25% and 5 corners. Their main problem is their finishing and consistency while Spain have only got themselves to fear.
There is some reason for France to be disappointed after this match for sure. At the end of the day they created chances and had more shots throughout the game, yet only two on target in comparison to Spain’s 3. This young French team is not quickly assembled for Brazil 2014 but for success at home for the Euro 2016, in France. The core of players is present and needs further efforts to make this team and squad a balanced and strong side. Pogba, Varane, Matuidi, Menez all have a future in this team, given they have the time and the trust by the national coach.
Spain look as assured as ever. They have proven that they are able to deal with situations where results might no go their way and look certain to qualify directly for Brazil in 2014.
image credits: who scored?