Paris: Spain bounced back from their mini-slump and dismissed early talk of a decline by beating France 1-0 on Tuesday to return to the top of their World Cup qualifying group. Pedro Rodriguez bundled home the winner from close range as Spain moved one point ahead with three games now remaining in Group I. The reigning world and European champion were two points behind before the game after consecutive home draws against Finland and France.
"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."
Pedro settled a fiercely contested match in which France missed good chances after being left unmarked to meet Ignacio Monreal's cross from the left in the 58th minute. The ball was way over the line before goalkeeper Hugo Lloris scooped it out.
"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.
"Paul got two yellow cards in quick succession which were a bit harsh. But he showed all of his potential out there. I don't have any regrets about picking him," Deschamps said. "(Franck) Ribery was fouled heavily by the same player (Xavi) and nothing happened."
Pogba felt he had been treated unfairly.
"I hardly touched him and they all knew I was on a yellow card, a yellow card that should not have been," Pogba said. "He touched my foot and then started to yell, the referee was there, he was tense and the red came out. That's football."
Striker Karim Benzema was jeered by the home crowd when he was substituted, as his barren spell for France reached 12 games.
"There's a lot of debate (about him) unfortunately. It doesn't help him and it doesn't help us," Deschamps said.
France beat Georgia 3-1 on Friday to take first place, and although Deschamps rued his side's poor finishing, he conceded that Spain's massive experience ultimately made the difference.
"Their starting XI has close to 700 caps, while ours has more like 300, and they have won three major titles. You're talking about the best team around," Deschamps said. "Spain had most of the possession but that's not a surprise. What is more worrying is that we had more chances than them, and obviously that's where we failed."
Deschamps kept the 20-year-old Pogba in midfield alongside Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye. But they were dominated by Xavi and Xabi Alonso.
"It was a big battle in midfield tonight and that's also where it was won," Del Bosque said.
Xavi should have put Spain ahead in the fifth minute when he blazed wide from six meters. 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, whose shot went over.
The Spanish bench jumped up in outrage in the 31st when Pedro went to ground under a challenge from Lloris, but referee Viktor Kassai waved away claims for a foul. Replays showed that Pedro started to fall down before Lloris made contact with his 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 left winger 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 'keeper Victor Valdes smothered his shot with Ribery poking the ball at full stretch.
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.
France broke straight up the field and Ribery presented Matuidi with a great chance, but his lame shot was too easy for Valdes.
Ribery went close with another drive, while left back Patrice Evra forced Valdes into a point-blank save as France pushed for a goal.
"You need to take your chances and for luck to go your way, which wasn't the case tonight," Deschamps said.