Serbia hold France to edge closer
© AFP

Serbia edged a step closer to automatic qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ finals as the Group 7 leaders held nearest challengers France to a stalemate in Belgrade. France recovered from the ninth-minute dismissal of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to salvage a point as Thierry Henry's effort after half an hour cancelled out Nenad Milijas' 13th-minute opener from the penalty spot. Serbia themselves ended the night with ten men when Danko Lazovic was dismissed late on.

The draw leaves France four points behind Serbia with two matches to play. The night got off to the worst possible start for the French when they were reduced to ten men inside the opening few minutes. Lloris had already been called into action to divert Gojko Kacar's goal-bound effort for a corner in the fifth minute, but the Lyon custodian went from hero to zero moments later when he felled Milan Jovanovic in the area.

Referee Roberto Rosetti had no hesitation in handing last-man Lloris his marching orders, forcing France coach Raymond Domenech into a frantic reshuffle. Andre Pierre Gignac was the unfortunate outfield player to make way for substitute goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, whose first action was to pick the ball out of the net as Milijas powerfully converted the spot-kick.

Despite finding themselves a man down, the French remained more than a match for the Serbians, who were perhaps feeling the pressure with qualification for next year's finals now firmly within reach. Bordeaux midfielder Yoann Gourcuff was busy in the middle of the park for the visitors and almost pulled his side level after 25 minutes with a drilled effort from 25 yards which flew just wide of the target.

French pressure was rewarded after 31 minutes, however, as Barcelona striker Henry fired home. Nicolas Anelka created the opening with a fierce long-range effort which was only parried by Vladimir Stojkovic in the Serbia goal, allowing Henry to follow up with an effort into the bottom-right corner.

Serbia captain Dejan Stankovic tried to lift his deflated team-mates and tried to force a breakthrough with a powerful effort after 39 minutes that was blocked by Eric Abidal, while a minute later Anelka went close at the other end with a shot from the edge of the area that cleared Stojkovic's crossbar. The busy Abidal again underlined the commitment of the French players with another block from a Jovanovic effort three minutes after the restart, and seconds later Branislav Ivanovic fired wide from distance as the hosts began to turn the screw.

Anelka had another sighter for the French after 53 minutes, but Ivanovic lit up the Red Star stadium moments later with a superb effort from the edge of the box which drew an equally impressive parry from Mandanda. A minute later the back-up goalkeeper had to be alert again as he held a headed effort from giant striker Nikola Zigic. Milos Ninkovic came close after 66 minutes as the hosts continued to press, although further efforts by Henry and Gourcuff indicated that France were not going to settle for a point.

Ninkovic's 82nd-minute cross found its way to Zigic, who should have done better than fire tamely at Mandanda from inside the six-yard box. Serbia's numerical advantage evaporated in the final minute when Lazovic received a straight red for a heavy challenge on Bacary Sagna, while France's Patrice Evra spurned the last chance of the match in stoppage time as both sides settled for a point.