By defeating UEFA EURO 2012 runners-up Italy 2-1 in their own back yard, a month after holding world champions Spain to a 1-1 draw, France confirmed their re-emergence as a force to be reckoned with on Wednesday.
Arguably the most impressive result of a busy night of friendlies belonged to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired Sweden, however, who beat England 4-2, courtesy of four goals from the Paris St Germain star. Argentina, meanwhile, had to content themselves with a 0-0 draw in Saudi Arabia, despite the best efforts of Lionel Messi.
FIFA.com rounds up all the action, results and goals from an intriguing evening of international duels.
The big match
Italy 1-2 France
Goals: Stephan El Shaarawy 35 (Italy); Mathieu Valbuena 37, Bafetimbi Gomis 72 (France)
France are clearly a team on an upward trajectory; after drawing with Spain in a recent FIFA World Cup™ qualifier, Les Bleus overcame a strong Italy side in Parma, and have now gone an astonishing 50 years since registering their last loss on Italian soil.
Yet it had all started so brightly for La Nazionale, who opened the scoring with a flowing move involving Andrea Barzagli, Mario Balotelli and Riccardo Montolivo, who drove forward before slipping a lovely ball through for Stephan El Shaarawy. The AC Milan forward kept his cool to slot the ball between the legs of Hugo Lloris.
The French drew level in style just two minutes later, Marseille attacker Mathieu Valbuena cutting in from the left, beating two Italian defenders and whipping an unstoppable right-foot shot into the top corner.
The equaliser brought the match to life, as play raged from one end to the other. The breakthrough finally came halfway through the second period, Jeremy Menez bursting down the line before finding Patrice Evra in space. The Manchester United man’s shot, which may have been trundling wide, was poked into the net by a stretching Bafetimbi Gomis. Italy pushed hard during the final fifteen minutes, but were lucky not to concede again, as Didier Deschamps’ charges continued to catch them on the counter-attack.
The other games
Goals from Danny Welbeck and Steven Caulker, who was making his international debut, appeared to have put a much-changed England team in the driving seat against Sweden in Solna. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic had other ideas, and his four goals, including a truly amazing acrobatic effort in injury time, propelled the Swedes to a memorable 4-2 triumph.
Despite the reverse, Roy Hodgson will doubtless be pleased to have had the chance to blood a handful of rising stars, and will be aware that his side are unlikely to come up against a player of Ibrahimovic’s class every time.
The Netherlands and Germany played out an uninspiring 0-0 stalemate which, taking into account the numerous absences from both line-ups, is perhaps not hugely surprising.
Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina both enjoyed last-gasp away victories in North Africa, versus Tunisia (2-1) and Algeria (1-0) respectively. Xherdan Shaqiri grabbed the winner for the Swiss, while Muamer Svraka did the damage for the Bosnians.
Despite a brace from Nejc Pecnik, Slovenia were unable to halt a poor run of results, losing 3-2 to Macedonia. Ukraine recorded a useful 1-0 success in Bulgaria, who have thus far impressed in FIFA World Cup qualifying. Elsewhere, Turkey and Denmark drew 1-1, Mevlut Erding and Nicklas Bendtner getting on the scoresheet, while Belgium suffered a surprising 2-1 loss in Romania, for whom Gabriel Torje scored the decisive goal from the penalty spot.
The Czech Republic saw off their Slovakian neighbours 3-0, courtesy of a double from David Lafata, in a match that featured eleven substitutions. Portugal, meanwhile, appeared to struggle without Cristiano Ronaldo in their 2-2 draw with Gabon.
Although Lionel Messi was the player expected to make headlines against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, it was Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero who excelled on the night, pulling off numerous important saves.
Frank Rijkaard, Messi’s first coach at Barcelona and now at the helm of the Green Falcons, saw his players create several golden opportunities against an off-colour South American team that only began to properly push for a winner in the final quarter of an hour. But the Saudi Arabians held on for a deserved draw, which will go down as one of their most remarkable results in recent times.
The other South American countries in action on Wednesday experienced varying fortunes. Uruguay bounced back to get the better of Poland 3-1, with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez both contributing goals, but Chile were undone against Serbia by the same scoreline. Lazar Markovic, Filip Djordjevic and Filip Djuricic found the net for the Balkan nation.
In addition to friendly encounters, there were two European Zone FIFA World Cup qualifying matches on the fixture list. In Group H, Montenegro secured a comfortable 3-0 victory over San Marino, with Rayo Vallecano striker Andrija Delibasic netting twice. Those three points enable the Montenegrins to leapfrog England at the top of the section, with both teams now having played the same number of games.
In Group F, a David Healy goal salvaged a point for Northern Ireland in the last minute of their home clash with Azerbaijan.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic appeared determined to shine in Solna, and he did exactly that and more, practically beating England singlehandedly. Clearly happy with the support he was receiving from his team-mates, Ibrahimovic was outstanding all night long, putting in a display brimming with skill and physical prowess. His fourth goal of the game, a spectacular long-range overhead kick, may well go down as one of the strikes of the season. Unless, of course, he has similar tricks up his sleeve in the near future.
Russia 1-1 United States, Michael Bradley 76
A deep cross from Maurice Edu was met with a cushioned header from Juan Agudelo, positioned just inside the box. Michael Bradley strode forward and caught the ball cleanly with a right-footed volley that soared into the net off the post. The USA would go on to secure a creditable 2-2 draw.
10 – Argentina have chalked up seven victories, two draws and just one loss in 2012, putting in performances that have oscillated between excellent and below-par. While Lionel Messi and Co can look back on impressive defeats of global heavyweights such as Germany (3-1), Brazil (4-3) and Uruguay (3-0), they have also been forced to share the spoils with more modest opponents like Peru (1-1) and Saudi Arabia (0-0) as well as suffering a 2-1 loss to Brazil.
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