Olivier Giroud scored a dramatic late equaliser to hand France a vital advantage in the race to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Spain, who had won 24 consecutive qualifying games before Tuesday night, will travel to the Stade de France in March 2013 knowing that they may have to win if they are to qualify from the top of Group I. If not, a play-off awaits. When Giroud headed in, the Vicente Calderón had long been nervous, the whistles ringing out as the fans implored the German referee to bring this game to a close. As the ball hit the net, the clock showed 93 minutes; there was barely time for Spain to take the kick-off.
Spain had been so close to taking a huge step towards qualification but it was France who finished the more satisfied and few could doubt that they deserved it. "It would have been unfair if we had lost this game," Didier Deschamps, the France coach, said.
Spain, who had led through Sergio Ramos and had a Cesc Fábregas penalty saved, began losing control of the game. A mistake from Juanfran was seized upon in the dying seconds by Moussa Sissoko and Franck Ribéry. Ribéry's clipped cross found Giroud, who became the first player in seven competitive games to score against Iker Casillas. The Arsenal striker had been on the pitch only for a matter of minutes after replacing the injured Karim Benzema. Benzema had appeared to take France's chance with him. Not so.
Although Georgia, Finland and Belarus make up Group I, first place was always likely to be between Spain and France and only first place guarantees qualification for Brazil 2014. These two teams have seven points each. It is likely to be all about Paris in the spring. The Spain coach, Vicente del Bosque, had described this game as like the first leg of a cup tie. A 1-1 home draw is rarely a good result.
Spain had taken the lead after 25 minutes. A simple corner from the right taken by Xavi Hernández found Sergio Ramos unmarked seven yards out and he leapt, unobstructed, to head against a post. As he stood, head in hands, lamenting the one that got away, it came back again. Pedro was quickly on to the rebound and he turned the ball back into the six-yard box. Hugo Lloris dived to cut it out but could push it only into the path of Sergio Ramos, who smashed it high into the net and somersaulted in celebration.
Spain had dominated possession until that point but had created few clear chances. And then, with the most basic of boots up the pitch, France almost had the equaliser when Ribéry played in Benzema and his shot was pushed wide by Casillas.
Deschamps' side thought they had the equaliser soon after when Jérémy Ménez had the ball in the net, only for the referee, Felix Brych, to rule it out. Ménez had failed to reach a curling free-kick from the right but Benzema, at the far post, did and his header went back across the face of goal for Ménez to nod in at the near post. The linesman's flag was raised swiftly. Replays suggested that it should not have been – Sergio Ramos's lunge looked to have played Ménez onside.
Spain failed to double their lead two minutes later when Laurent Koscielny scythed down Pedro. Fábregas struck the penalty hard but he also struck it within reaching distance of Lloris.
The Spurs goalkeeper then made a double save on the stroke of half-time, first denying Pedro after Xavi's delightful flicked pass and then reacting quickly to push away Fábregas's follow up.
Those final minutes set the tone for an open, exciting second half. France took the game to Spain. The game got stretched. A huge gap appeared in the middle of midfield … a consequence perhaps of Sergio Busquets not patrolling his usual territory having been pressed into service as a centre-back instead. To his right, Alvaro Arbeloa went off injured and, as if smelling blood, Ribéry ran at his replacement Juanfran time and again.
Chances came and went and, although not all of them were clear opportunities, the sense of danger was heightened at both ends. Ribéry hit the side-netting. He slotted one lovely pass to Benzema who had strayed fractionally offside and hit another one across the face of the goal that the striker could not quite reach. Yohan Cabaye's shot was blocked by Pedro and Ménez just failed to reach Benzema's ball.
Spain had their moments too: Sergio Ramos headed over and Fábregas had a shot blocked. The game had a very different feel now. France were threatening with the introduction of Mathieu Valbuena giving them more edge. Sissoko volleyed over, then scuffed a shot. A moment later the ball dropped fractionally behind Giroud. Spain, it seemed, had survived. But in the last minute, when Ribéry advanced on the left on the umpteenth occasion, this time the ball dropped right on Giroud's head.