It hadn't been the best World Cup qualifying campaign for defending world champions Spain -- they went into France needing a victory to ensure that they held their destiny in their own hands. A draw against Finland would hardly have filled them with confidence, but they managed the job anyway, with an ugly goal from Pedro the margin in a tightly-fought game marred by a late red card.
Spain had the game's real first chance, with stand-in left back Nacho Monreal demolishing the home defence when he cut in from the flank and dragged an inviting pass towards the penalty spot. Unfortunately for the visitors, the pass fell to Xavi rather than to a Pedro or David Villa, and the Barcelona man hammered his first-time shot just over Hugo Lloris' crossbar.
France were looking to suck the defending champions forward and then hit their guests on the counterattack, and they came close to breaking the deadlock when Christophe Jallet sprang clear on the right. His cutback mirrored Monreal's, but so too did the ultimate result, with Karim Benzema firing over for a goal kick -- albeit from further out that Xavi's six-yard chance.
But mostly, Spain were in control. Their possession game left France chasing shadows, wearing themselves out as they watched their opponents passing circles in the midfield. That nearly cost them in the 31st minute when Lloris wiped out Pedro in the penalty area only for the referee to wave off the astonish Spaniards' demands for a penalty.
There were scares for Spain as well. Mathieu Valbuena's long ball to Franck Ribéry saw Gerard Pique lost, and the Bayern Munich winger scampered clean through on goal only to be thwarted by a combination of a poor touch and Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes, keeping the match scoreless through halftime.
Valdes was called into action once more following the break, just punching clear a superb cross that would have left Patrice Evra with a free header at the far post, with Benzema nodding a little way wide -- and then smacking his head into Sergio Busquets' -- after that. At the other end, some superb Spanish combination play resulted in Andres Iniesta flicking over... and eventually it also brought about a goal.
Monreal was once again superb, getting played into the space behind Jallet and centreing for Pedro, left free thanks to some lackadaisical defending from Evra. Lloris desperately tried to block the shot, and managed to take some of the sting about it, but his attempted punch clear only ended up helping the ball into the back of the net. Spain needed a win, and now they were 1-0 up.
Pedro had a chance to double the lead shortly thereafter when substitute Jesus Navas picked him out in the six-yard box only for a cruel bounce to take the ball off his boot, and then Valdes did his part by keeping Blaise Matuidi's low drive out following fine work from Ribéry.
Barcelona-killer Rafael Varane very nearly profited from a goalmouth scramble in the 75th minute, with some deeply unfortunate set-piece defending resulting in the ball dropping to the Real Madrid centre half. But he wasn't expecting a chance that close to goal, and Monreal did just enough to ensure the shot went wide.
And then Paul Pogba went a little bit mad. Having picked up a yellow card in the 77th for a foul on Xabi Alonso, his next contribution to the match was to go in late and high on Xavi. Referee Viktor Kassai looked baffled that the midfielder could possibly have been so stupid, but pulled out the second yellow and red anyway, sending the youngster trudging off for an early bath.
Despite going down to ten men, France weren't done. Ribéry rocketed a shot just wide from the top of the box, and better was to come as time wound down. A free kick was won on the left, and Evra was left to power a free header goalward only for Valdes to produce a miraculous save in order to keep the visitors' lead intact.
Apart from a Busquets half-chance, that save proved to be the last real action of the match. It wasn't pretty, but Spain had done just enough to earn the points in France. A country in crisis? It sure doesn't look like it.