France Spoil the Spanish World Cup Fiesta and Threaten Their Qualification Hopes
It was billed as an evening in which Spain would heap further embarrassment on France, a nation still reeling from a home defeat against Japan and a recent history of discomposure in major tournaments.
Only one team from Group I can automatically qualify for World Cup 2014, and before the match in Madrid, it was expected to be the one who had won an unprecedented 24 consecutive qualification matches.
But after an impressive second-half display from Les Bleus, culminating in a last-gasp equaliser from Olivier Giroud, the race for automatic qualification for the 2014 World Cup remains unresolved.
Consider the Spanish party Giroud-ined.
While Georgia, Finland and Belarus are competing in UEFA Group I too, it's realistically a two-horse race. The match at the Vicente Calderón Stadium––where the Spanish national team have never lost an international game––was effectively the first leg in of a knockout phase for top spot, with the second leg taking place at the Stade de France in March.
The French also had two wins, but in light of recent performances, and the relative inexperience at international level of manager Didier Deschamps, the national press had been rather pessimistic ahead of the game.
How wrong they were.
Spain started strong, with a 25th-minute opener coming from an unmarked Sergio Ramos, who had hit the post seconds earlier. Hugo Lloris then stepped up to save a Cesc Fabregas penalty after a terrible challenge from Laurent Koscielny, and Karim Benzema was very unlucky to be judged offside after putting the ball in the net five minutes before halftime.
In the second half, France couldn't have looked any more different from the toothless side who lost to the Spanish in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals earlier this year. The 13th-ranked side in the world stepped up the pressure on the reigning champions and were unlucky not to have equalized long before Olivier Giroud capitalized on Juanfran's error in the 93rd minute.
Both sides now sit on seven points, but France will be buoyant from this positive performance and have home advantage when the return leg is played out in March.
However, a second-place finish in Group I does not necessarily mean Spain will not be booking flights to Rio in 2014. In the past two qualification campaigns in which they finished runner-up––World Cup 2006 and Euro 2004––they have stormed through the playoffs, scoring no less than five aggregate goals in each instance.
And while the French will be encouraged by their night in Madrid, we only need to look back at Euro 2012 to see Spain cruising in second gear at the beginning of the tournament, before bringing out their proverbial big guns as the prize draws nearer. They could be biding their time in a similar fashion in this campaign.
Spain will probably remain favourites to win their group and qualify automatically, but when they meet Franck Ribery et al. again next year, Les Bleus will know one thing: This is a Spanish side who can be beaten.
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