Spain's streak ends, Belgium stays hot in Euro World Cup qualifying
Spains's run of 24 straight qualifying wins ended with a 1-1 draw vs. France
Germany saw a 4-0 lead disappear as Sweden fought back to force a 4-4 draw
Belgium is tied for the Group A lead as it eyes its first World Cup berth since 2002
It was an incredible night of drama in the European World Cup qualifiers as Spain and Germany both conceded dramatic last-minute equalizers to end winning streaks. Meanwhile Belgium continued its positive run of form, while question marks remain over the future of Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni.
Here is a wrap of Tuesday's European World Cup qualifiers:
If ever there was a time to play Spain, this was it; never mind that France was missing Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (suspended) and midfielders Rio Mavuba and Abou Diaby (injured). Spain was without center backs Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, and there were concerns pre-match that France would make life difficult for the European and world champion in what was billed as the first leg of two-legged tie to finish top of Group I.
And so it proved as they played to a 1-1 draw. Yes, Spain took the lead, through Sergio Ramos, and it squandered the opportunity to double it when Cesc Fabregas had a penalty saved by the excellent Hugo Lloris (incidentally, it would be very tough for Spurs coach Andre Villas-Boas to drop him for Saturday's Chelsea game after this performance). But France always looked dangerous on the counter-attack, even if Karim Benzema was thwarted on the few occasions he bore down on his Real Madrid teammate, Spain goalkeeper Casillas.
This was not a vintage night for Benzema: in France's recent biggest matches (the Euro 2012 qualifying decider against Bosnia Herzegovina, and the England match and Spain quarterfinal in Euro 2012), he has failed to repeat his Real Madrid form. Again, there will be questions about his temperament when the big games come around.
It was two substitutions that would prove decisive in the end; first Didier Deschamps brought on Mathieu Valbuena for Jeremy Menez, with the Marseille winger much more dangerous (even though Menez had an effort disallowed which on replays, looked just OK). But it was the introduction of Spanish right back Juanfran for the injured Alvaro Arbeloa that led to France's equalizer.
Put simply, Juanfran had a 'Ginola moment'. Back in November 1993, France needed a draw with Bulgaria to reach the 1994 World Cup. With 89 minutes on the clock, the score was 1-1 when Ginola, near the opposition corner flag, over-hit a cross that turned into a breakaway goal scored by Emil Kostadinov. France was eliminated, and coach Gerard Houllier always blamed Ginola for the defeat (never mind that France was also unable to draw with
Israel four days earlier; he called Ginola's actions "criminal" and referred to it so many times that Ginola ended up taking legal action, which he lost).
For Juanfran, he had the ball inside the French half with 93 minutes on the clock; instead of turning and passing it to a teammate, in keeping with the Spanish philosophy, he tried to dribble round midfielder Moussa Sissooko. Big mistake: Sissoko dispossessed him, ran upfield, passed to Franck Ribery, who was excellent all night, and his cross was brilliantly glanced home by Oliver Giroud, who had just come on as a substitute.
The French celebrations showed what a big goal it was. They piled on top of each other -- and on coach Dider Deschamps -- in a display of unity not seen in this side since it won the 1998 World Cup. Giroud's effort was the first goal Casillas had conceded for Spain in over 780 minutes, and ended Spain's run of 24 straight wins in qualifying matches. L'Equipe pointed out before the game: "France has less talent, less experience and less class: to avoid defeat in Madrid would be a huge achievement."
Make no mistake, this result was deserved, as Spain coach Vicente del Bosque graciously admitted after the final whistle.
It now leaves Spain needing to win in Paris next March to give itself a chance of topping the group. That is, unless someone slips up against one of the other teams in the group -- and with France still to go to Georgia and Belarus, you never know. But this was France's night. Deschamps and Lloris will be the heroes, while Ribery and young midfielder Blaise Matuidi were also immense.
Spain has had a blip. It is human after all. It will be interesting to see how it responds to that. I'm already worried for Finland, its next Group I opponents in March.
Any worries about Germany under coach Joachim Loew -- and there were some, about the lack of left backs to choose from, the lack of unity in the squad, and players like Mario Götze and Toni Kroos complaining in public about lack of playing time at Euro 2012 (and others, like Per Mertesacker, in private) -- were dissipated when the Nationalmannschaft brushed aside Ireland 6-1 in Dublin last Friday. Things looked even better when it stormed into a 4-0 lead against Sweden, playing some fantastic football and Mesut Ozil scoring his fourth in as many games.
But one goal that Sweden pulled back, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic header which should have been the consolation, sent panic throughout Germany's frail back line; soon 4-1 became 4-2, and 4-3, with 10 minutes left to play. Sweden was suddenly pouring forward, Germany wasting time. Rasmus Elm capped the mother of all comebacks with the last-minute leveller for a 4-4 draw that left even Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt jumping out of his seat and punching the air in delight (he had been sitting next to German counterpart Angela Merkel).
The German inquest will be a long and nervous one for Loew, who said after the game: "The atmosphere in the changing room is dead. The lads can't even speak. They are just lying there. Disbelief."
There may even be calls for him to step aside, not just because of this result but because after six years in the job, his natural time may be up.
"We'll sit down together and analyze everything," said stunned captain Philipp Lahm. "This just can't happen."
The quality in this Belgium squad is no secret: with 12 of its players owned by Premier League clubs, including the captains of champion Manchester City(Vincent Kompany) and Arsenal (Thomas Vermaelen) as well as this season's key players at Chelsea (Eden Hazard), Everton (Marouane Fellaini) and Tottenham Hotspur (Jan Vertonghen), there is talent everywhere.
The problem is producing at the right time, and that finally happened on Friday night. Faced with a tough game at Group A rivals Serbia, fresh from beating Wales 6-1, Belgium rode its luck early on before running out 3-0 winner. Two years ago, it might have lost that game.
"We showed good mentality, that's what we need to keep on going," said Kompany.
The feeling that this young group of players is that they believed the hype and were calmed down since Marc Wilmots replaced Georges Leekens as coach. Wilmots has proved he is no pushover by dropping Eden Hazard from Tuesday's starting line-up in the 2-0 win over Scotland.
The star of their two games was Kevin de Bruyne, Chelsea's young winger, currently on loan at Werder Bremen. In both matches he crossed for Christian Benteke to score the opening goal. Belgium is now tied for the Group A lead with Croatia and with a double-header against FYR Macedonia next up, is well set for a first World Cup appearance since 2002.
If Germany's 6-1 win in Dublin last Friday set the wheels in motion for Giovanni Trapattoni's likely departure as Ireland coach, the damage was really done in Poland at Euro 2012.
Ireland was the first team eliminated from the competition, admittedly from a really tough group, but it was Trap's decision to make no changes for Game 3, a dead rubber against Spain, which has cost him now.
That move alienated players he now needs: Darron Gibson, overlooked for the Euros, retired from international football, while the likes of Shane Long, James McClean and Stephen Kelly have all been disaffected by Trap's famous stubbornness.
There was a sense of dread before Ireland's 4-1 win over the Faroe Islands, but even that result is unlikely to stave off the inevitable. The Irish FA is set to convene later this week to discuss a compensation package suitable for Trap's €1.7m contract, which has two years to run. Already replacements mentioned include Owen Coyle, Mick McCarthy (again), Harry Redknapp and, hilariously, Roy Keane (as Sunday Independent reporter Dion Fanning put it: "Keane would be fun while it lasted, which would be about three days").
For all that, the new man would inherit a talented squad, a team with two wins out of three in Group C, and with six months to prepare for March's tough qualifier in Sweden.
SI Now: Should NCAA Student Athletes be treated as pros?
SI Now: What role will Tim Tebow fill for the Patriots?