By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
This was a time for heroes. Two sloppy goals conceded against France and Finland had suddenly left Spain staring at second spot in Group I and the possibility of a playoff to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next year. A champions' performance was required - and it duly arrived.
Pressed back early on by a fired-up France side in Paris, Spain soon found their way as Xabi Alonso pinged passes in and around the locals' area and one such move started from deep saw Andres Iniesta find the advancing Nacho Monreal, whose cutback for Xavi should have been buried by the Barcelona midfielder.
Xavi had not been fully fit in this game but, like Alonso, he had wanted to play. The Catalan was unable to exert the imperious influence we have come to expect, but his mere presence proved important on a night of such significance. Win in Paris and Spain were back in control of their own destiny.
All around Xavi there were heroes in red. Sergio Busquets won the ball back tirelessly; Alvaro Arbeloa marked Franck Ribery with distinction despite recent criticism; Iniesta was immense as usual on his 80th cap; Alonso controlled the game from deep; Pedro's intelligent running and determination eventually clinched a famous victory.
|FRANCE 0-1 SPAIN | MATCH STATS
Yet the two peerless performances on the night came from unexpected sources - Victor Valdes and Nacho Monreal. Two men only in the team due to important absences - the Barcelona goalkeeper standing in for the injured Iker Casillas and the Arsenal left-back deputising for Jordi Alba.Prior to the match, the two positions had caused concern to Spain supporters. Both Group I goals conceded had originated from mistakes in the right-back role (one from Juanfran in the 1-1 draw with France in October; the other an Arbeloa error in Friday's Finland tie). And now Vicente del Bosque had been forced to make a change on the other side of his defence - as well as fielding a goalkeeper who, although among the best in the world, was playing his first competitive Spain game away from home.
Fans need not have worried. Doubts were dispelled. Valdes and Monreal emerged as giants in this era-defining equipo. And without them, victory on Tuesday would have been impossible.
Casillas, who had travelled to be with the team on their night of need at the behest of Xavi and the rest of his team-mates, watched on nervously from the stands as Valdes pulled off two world-class stops. The Catalan denied Ribery in a one-on-one which had seen him looking very much second favourite in the first half, before later producing a remarkable reflex save to repel Patrice Evra's 86th-minute header. He also dealt well with France's aerial bombardment and produced a prodigious performance which sits aptly alongside his 2006 Champions League final heroics at the same stadium, when he frustrated another famous Frenchman, Arsenal's Thierry Henry. The two then became team-mates at Barca and the striker told the keeper that, without his interventions that day in May, it would have been Arsenal and not the Catalan club lifting the coveted crown.
And it was a modern-day Gunner who starred alongside Valdes on Tuesday. Monreal defended with discipline, stayed strong in the tackle and was always available to attack down his side of the pitch, just like the absent Alba. The former Osasuna and Malaga man should have had an assist after squaring for Xavi early on, but did get one later as he combined with Pedro for the all-important goal with a surge into the area and cross for the Barca forward to net from close range, and produced a vital blocked tackle late in the game as Raphael Varane looked certain to score from a rebound.
When Spain begin the defence of the World Cup crown next year in Brazil, Valdes and Monreal are unlikely to be in the starting side. The two played a pivotal part on Tuesday, though, as la Roja returned to their brilliant best. The winning margin could have been greater in the end as Xavi and Iniesta missed good chances and Pedro was denied a possible penalty, but the result was the right one and Spain showed they are still the team to beat in world football as new heroes emerged to make them even stronger than before.
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