Didier Deschamps moved France back to a 4-3-3 with Yohan Cabaye coming in for Olivier Giroud and also made two changes to his back four, replacing Gael Clichy and Mamadou Sakho with Patrice Evra and Laurent Koscielny.
Vicente Del Bosque, who had Xavi announced fit before the game, chose Nacho Monreal at left back in place of the injured Jordi Alba and not surprisingly welcomed back Xabi Alonso alongside Sergio Busquets in central midfield, a partnership that did not start together in either draws against France and Finland in this group.
- This was a very good football match. Unlike the past two encounters between these sides (the QF in Euro 2012 and the 1-1 draw in October) this game was not one-sided but the best team still won.
- Spain weren’t back to their best but played a game very similar to many they have won during the success in the last five years. At the heart of many of those wins has been Xavi and arguably the greatest footballer the country has ever produced was at his best in this game.
- France’s system worked. They played a very narrow midfield three and Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba took in turns to press with Yohan Cabaye but they were still undone by the brains and precision of passing from Xavi and his Spanish team-mates. It is difficult to criticize the position deployed by the French trio yet the visitors were still able to get in behind them and create chances via the space they found.
- Both Xavi, who blazed over the bar inside five minutes, and Xabi Alonso, who then fed Xavi for another chance soon after, did very well to get in behind the trio early and as the game wore on France naturally got deeper but still had no answer for Spain’s movement.
- The biggest talking point in the first half came around a collision in the box between Pedro and Hugo Lloris. Andres Iniesta played a wonderful ball over the top and Pedro got in between the defence and ran in one-on-one with the ourushing ‘keeper. The Spanish winger then put the ball around Lloris before clattering into him. At first it looked like a stonewall penalty, and a red card, but upon reflection it appeared Pedro went down a little early before contact. Was it a foul? Maybe. Do you see them given more than not? Yes. However, that doesn’t mean referee Viktor Kassai got it wrong. We must be aware in situations like this of the rules. It is far too easy for a referee to say the player went down was fouled, there’s a red card and a penalty but for such a monumental game-changing decision the referee at the time HAS to be sure he was fouled. He judged he wasn’t and I think he got it right.
- It would not be Pedro’s only decisive moment as the winger got the game’s only goal just before the hour when Monreal got the better of Christophe Jallet before sending an inviting cross in that Pedro just wanted to get on the end of. It was a scrappy finish but the desire he showed to get there before Patrice Evra was impressive.
- Five minutes later, Pedro, now playing centre forward with Jesus Navas on for the quiet David Villa, should have made it 2-0 when he shot over from a cross by Navas.
- France did have their own chances to score but you get the feeling that when Spain give them a chance they still remain in control, unless it is from a set-piece. This remains Spain’s biggest weakness and both Raphael Varane and Evra came very close to scoring from corners in the second half. Both plays said a lot about Victor Valdes. The first one saw him rush off his line like a lunatic, exposing his goal, while the second saw him produce a brilliant palm stop against the Manchester United left back.
- Other chances came for the home side, usually created by the impressive Mathieu Valbuena who reveled cutting inside a lot to create openings, something you can afford to do against Spain playing on that side as Iniesta does the same and you don’t have to stay wide to stick to your defensive responsibilities.
- Pogba had a good game in midfield but spoiled it with two high tackles in a minute inside the last 15 minutes, getting his marching orders by the ref. France does not need anymore undisciplined midfielders but it should be said he more than looked the part until that moment.
- For Spain the three points take them back to where they will feel they belong. At the top of Group I. They can book their tickets to Brazil 2014 now as group winners. Three wins in their next three games – Finland(a), Belarus(h), Georgia(h) – will just make it a formality. Del Bosque will be delighted they passed such a stiff test and won yet another close game against top opposition.
- France are used to qualifying for tournaments through the playoffs and will now have to get used that possibility again. Lots of positives came out of this for Deschamps but one major worry continues to be the form and play of Karim Benzema, who was jeered off when substituted late in this game. He should no longer be an automatic name in the starting XI.