The Arsenal midfielder scored the only goal of the game midway through the opening period to get les Bleus' World Cup qualifying campaign off to a positive startFrance made a winning but rather unconvincing start to its World Cup 2014 qualification campaign, defeating Finland 1-0 in Helsinki.
In a group with defending champions Spain, Didier Deschamps’ men could not afford to drop points in their opening fixture and would win the game thanks to a well-taken strike from midfielder Abou Diaby midway through the first half.
France, as strong favorites to win the encounter, quickly assumed the role of dominant side, yet they were unable to fashion an opening in a Finnish defense that looked solid and resolute.
Indeed, it was the home side who created the first big opening of the match, but after springing the offside trap convincingly, Kasper Hamalainen dallied just long enough over his shot to allowed Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa to execute a fine recovery challenge with the home fans crying for a penalty.
When les Bleus created their first opening, they were more clinical. Karim Benzema weaved past three players having dropped into a surprisingly deep position, but Diaby made up great ground to break beyond the striker, latch onto an inch-perfect pass and then steer a shot across Niki Maenpaa and into the net.
Though controlling the match, France would not really threaten to break clear until after the break, when it forced Maenpaa into two fine saves in quick succession. First Yohan Cabaye tried his luck with a swerving shot from the edge of the box only for the goalkeeper to claw it clear, and from the resultant corner a Yanga-Mbiwa header had the custodian at full stretch to grasp the ball.
Still very much in the game with 30 minutes remaining, the hosts seemed to gain belief that they could unsettle the young duo at the heart of the France defense. Teemu Pukki was the recipient of the hosts’ best chance, but when neat work down the right presented him with virtually an open goal 12-yards out, Anthony Reveillere saved the day for the visitors by clipping the ball off his toes.
Although France rarely looked in serious trouble, some sloppy marking from a corner late on presented Tim Sparv with a free header, yet this effort was saved by Hugo Lloris and the danger thereafter scrambled away.
While victory was imperative for France, the performance as a whole lacked assurance, and Deschamps has a great deal of work to do if his side is to trouble Spain in UEFA qualifying Group 10.
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