Spain back on top of Group I after 1-0 win over France
PARIS (AP) -- 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 its 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.
"I really don't know how it went in,'' Pedro said. "It was a tough game that we knew we couldn't lose.''
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.
"They are three welcome points, and this changes our group position for the better,'' Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "We stuck to our way of playing tonight and we're happy with that.
"There are still three games left so there is plenty of time left to drop points, for both sides. This isn't over although it's true France missed a chance to pull away.''
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.
"It was a big battle in midfield tonight and that's also where it was won,'' Del Bosque said. "We could have scored more, and we had to suffer until the end.''
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.
"It's impossible to see from where I was, so I can't judge,'' Del Bosque said.
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 his lame shot was too easy for Valdes.
But it was Ribery who remained France's biggest threat, he went close with another drive, while left back Patrice Evra forced Valdes into a point-blank save as France pushed for a goal.
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