Published March 27, 2013
PARIS – Doing just enough to win but no more can be the measure of a team that is strong and in control. Or it can suggest that a team doesn't have that much more to give. Which is it with Spain?
The world and European champions appear to be developing a tendency to be at their brilliant best only intermittently. One day, perhaps as soon as the World Cup in Brazil next year, that may no longer be enough to keep Spain on top.
Had it not been for wasteful finishing from France and the cat-like reflexes of Victor Valdes in the Spanish goal on Tuesday night, Spain might now be staring at a full-blown crisis, with grave doubts hanging over its prospects of reaching the 2014 World Cup.
As it was, Spain beat France 1-0, so all seemed well. The victory made it seem like this was a clear-cut case of champions proving their worth by engineering a win when it truly mattered.
It put Spain atop World Cup qualifying Group I, which guarantees it a place in Brazil if it stays there. France now appears doomed to run the gauntlet of playoffs in November that offer four final qualifying spots to Europe's second-best teams.
But Spain did only what was needed against France. It wasn't dominant. It wasn't ever completely comfortable, even after Pedro's second-half goal and the sending off of France midfielder Paul Pogba. A bit of better fortune for the French here or a stronger shot there from off-target French striker Karim Benzema, and the result could have been different.
Of course, you can always say that in football. But you don't expect to say it quite so often of the world and European champions.
During the European Championship last June and now in World Cup qualifying, the Spanish have come out on top without being wholly convincing. At the Euros, they didn't catch fire until their 4-0 demolition of Italy in the final. They were lucky to beat Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in a semifinal penalty shootout.
They cut things fine at the packed Stade de France against a team with half their experience and half their talent. The fact that Spain's best player was Valdes illustrated that this was closer and cagier than it should have been.
Had the goalkeeper not stood firm against Franck Ribery, blocking his first-half shot, and swatting away Patrice Evra's diving header five minutes from the end, it might have been Spain and not France now facing the uncomfortable possibility of playoff uncertainty.
France midfielder Yohan Cabaye said that while he still regards Spain as the best side in world football, it no longer seems quite as invincible. Part of the reason, he suggested, is that Spain's rivals have had plenty of time to study its style and develop strategies to negate it.
Les Bleus defended high up the pitch in two lines, allowing the Spanish possession away from the French goal and waiting for opportunities to bite back with counter-attacks.
"We've learned about their play and we had a plan to play against them," Cabaye said. "First we had to defend well, to stay in a good shape and a good position to defend, and then be quick to attack."
Cabaye singled out the Spanish defense as their "weakness," even though France failed to exploit it.
"We can put them more under pressure than in the past," he said.
Still, Spain's quality remains plain to see, in almost every position. Only striker David Villa stood out for the wrong reasons. His notable failure to have an impact up front raised the question of who Spain will rely on for goals in Brazil. But that question was asked at the 2012 Euros, too, and still Spain won.
As the reigning champions, the Spanish live with extraordinary levels of scrutiny for any hint of decline or that their high standards are slipping. Against France, there was no solid evidence that decay is setting in.
But to become just the third nation after Italy and Brazil to defend the World Cup, doing just enough surely won't be enough.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester