Spain fought hard to earn a 1-0 win over France at the Stade de France in Paris on Tuesday, reasserting themselves as the leaders of Group I. France went toe-to-toe with the defending World Cup and European Champions but eventually caved in the 58th minute when Pedro sloppily made the ball go into the net off a Nacho Monreal cross.
France attempted to rally for a draw in the final third of the match but were unsuccessful due to the goalkeeping of Victor Valdes, in for Iker Cassillas (arm), and being cut to 10 men after Paul Pogba was shown his second yellow card and sent off in the 77th minute for clipping Pedro.
Though away from home, Spain controlled the match from the opening kickoff. They maintained their possession-based style, inching their way up the field with patient, deadly passes.
Xavi got the game's first look, finding himself open in the six-yard box off a Monreal feed in the 5th minute, though he sent the ball over the crossbar. In the 32nd minute, Pedro found his way into the penalty area via a long ball from Xabi Alonso. He took one touch and rounded French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who then brought down Pedro. Referee Viktor Kassai did not award a penalty kick, despite serious protest from the Spanish players.
France came up with the first half's best scoring chance in the 39th minute when Mathieu Valbuena sent Franck Ribery into the penaltly area on a breakaway. Ribery's first touch was too heavy and he needed to fire earlier than he wanted, allowing Valdes to block shot from sliding into the net.
Spain resumed their offensive approach in the second half, putting heavy pressure on the French backline. But France came close to preventing Spain's goal.
First, Patrice Evra nearly slid Monreal's cross away from Pedro. Once Pedro shot, the ball deflected off of Lloris and flew weakly toward the back of the net. Lloris, on the turf, gave one last attempt at clearing the danger by attempting to punch the ball clear, but he inadvertently ensured that it would find its way into the net.
France sought an immediate response, with Blaise Matuidi's shot from just inside the penalty area saved by Valdes in the 64th minute.
France pushed forward despite losing Pogba in the 77th minute, but weren't rewarded. Valdes thwarted their final chance by parrying Evra's header off an inch-perfect Valbuena cross in the 87th minute.
Valdes' performance preserved Spain's victory in a game the French thought they could take. France had a two-point lead over Spain for control of Group I going into the game, with the group winner earning an automatic berth to Brazil 2014. But now only an upset will prevent Spain from winning the only nine-country group in European qualification.
France could reach the World Cup via home and away playoff just as they did four years ago. But being in a group with one less team takes six points off the table, which makes qualifying harder because France would need more points than at least one of the other group runners-up to move to the playoff round.
Almost everything went as expected for Europe's competitors on Tuesday. Belgium, Italy, Germany, Montenegro, and Netherlands maintained their group leads. Russia, Switzerland, and Bosnia-Herzegovina did not play, but remained first in their respective groups. Portugal is in second place behind Russia in Group F with 11 points, though the Portugese have played two more games than Russia. Montengro maintained first place in Group H, rallying late to earn a 1-1 draw with England. European teams in danger of not qualifying for Brazil 2014 that played in South Africa include Serbia, Denmark, Slovenia, and Slovakia. Belgium and Russia, who haven't qualified for the last two World Cups, have looked particularly impressive in qualification.
The biggest game will be Mexico against the United States, both of whom are favorites to reach Brazil 2014. As of now, Honduras leads the six-team group with one win and one tie. Honduras look as if they'll definitely compete at the World Cup. Panama look out-classed, having barely managed two draws. Jamaica and Costa Rica look like they'll duke it out for fourth place, which goes onto an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand for a spot in Brazil.
Japan could have officially qualified for the World Cup by beating Jordan on Tuesday, but instead fell 2-1. Nevertheless, they still lead their group by six points. And with the top two countries earning World Cup berths in this double-hexagonal stage, Japan will still likely qualify for Brazil. In Group B with Japan is Australia, who have qualified for the last two World Cups, but have been struggling in this qualification process. Australia is currently in third place and had to rally for a 2-2 draw against Oman on Tuesday, a very unconvincing performance for a team that is supposed to qualify easily for the World Cup. It's much more of a dogfight in Group A, where Uzbekistan lead the group with 11 points with second place Korea Republic following close behind with 10 points. 2022 hosts Qatar still have a shot to qualify too, tied for third with seven points with Iran. The two third place teams in Groups A and B will move on to a home and away playoff with each other for the fifth and final qualifying spot out of the Asian zone.
Argentina tied lowly Bolivia 1-1 on Tuesday but retained their lead of the nine-country group. With Brazil qualifying automatically for the World Cup as hosts, this may be Argentina's group to win. Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Chile all look like viable World Cup competitors, though only four teams can qualify automatically. With half the process complete in the South American zone, Argentina look like favorites not just to qualify, but to perform well yet again at the World Cup. True to recent history, Paraguay, Peru,and Bolivia look out-matched and don't appear to be at a level where they can compete with the other group members.
Former US head coach Bob Bradley's Egypt defeated Zimbabwe in a qualifier today, making them a shoe-in for the next and final round of Africa's qualification process. Countries are currently playing in ten four-team groups with the winners moving on to a knockout round. The knockout round features a home and away playoff for the ten group winners. Tunisia and Congo look like they'll definitely make it through to the knockout round, though it's too close to call in the other seven groups.
New Zealand have rounded up World Cup qualifying in the Oceania with 18 points, finishing unbeaten against New Caledonia, Tahiti, and Solomon Islands. But to qualify for Brazil, they will need to defeat the fourth place team in North America's region in a home and away playoff scheduled for November 15 and 19.
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