Wales had a ball on their previous visit to France but this trip was not quite so enjoyable. If facing the world champions was not daunting enough, playing more than an hour with 10 men was always going to be a gruelling exercise. Didier Deschamps was able to flaunt his embarrassment of riches as Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé earned victory but, strange as it may sound, Wales will point to plenty of positives.
Griezmann’s strike was a beauty and, if it is any consolation, Wales lost their final warm-up game before their historic Euro 2016 campaign by the same scoreline against Sweden. Ultimately Neco Williams’ harsh red card helped France activate cruise control in Nice.
The subsequent penalty was tailor-made for Karim Benzema to fill in the gaps on his return from international exile after 2,064 days in the wilderness, but Danny Ward dived the right way and extended the striker’s miserable record from 12 yards. He has now missed his last three penalties for France. On another night Benzema, who also rattled a post, would have left the pitch with the match ball.
“It’s hard enough to defend with 11 men against them, never mind 10,” Ward said.
The penalty stemmed from Benzema being thwarted in his attempt to poke in after a superb left-handed save by Ward denied Paul Pogba. The referee, Luis Godinho, spent a couple of minutes poring over a replay of the ball crashing into Williams’ arms and deemed it deliberate handball, giving the Liverpool full-back, lively until that point, a straight red card. “It can’t be clear and obvious if he needed that long to give it,” said the Wales winger Daniel James. “Even their players were saying, ‘Don’t send him off’.”
Wales were outnumbered but not overwhelmed. Gareth Bale helped out defensively, flicking Griezmann’s cross to safety, and the fit-again Joe Allen and Joe Morrell slogged away in midfield. France required a slice of luck to take the lead on 34 minutes.
Adrien Rabiot’s shot took a wicked deflection off Griezmann and wrong-footed Ward who, falling the wrong way, managed to repel the ball with his left boot but it looped up and a wired Mbappé feasted on the leftovers, beating Chris Mepham to the rebound before prodding in. Mbappé could have added a second before the interval but blasted over after a slick one-touch move, with Griezmann and Benzema again involved.
If Robert Page was still undecided as to who would be his first-choice goalkeeper at this summer’s tournament, then Ward’s audition in Nice to start against Switzerland next week was a compelling one. Ward, backup to Kasper Schmeichel at Leicester City, has been favoured of late and, while Wayne Hennessey is expected to get minutes in Saturday’s friendly against Albania, those fine first-half saves were a reminder of his credentials.
Wales had every right to feel hard done by but, when France found a second goal three minutes into the second half, they could have no complaints. Mbappé’s exquisite flick eluded Morrell and Griezmann, given time to take aim by Joe Rodon, picked his spot before bending a shot into the far pocket. Now France were purring, Mbappé dancing beyond challenges.
Page had six substitutions mapped out before kick-off and four arrived in one burst approaching the hour, with Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies among those introduced. Ramsey did not take long to exert his influence, slipping James in on goal. It was a delicious pass but James failed to beat an alert Hugo Lloris.
A goal also eluded Benzema but the striker shone on his return. “I felt good all match and got stronger as it went on,” he said. “We still have time to fine-tune our attacking understanding. We tried things. I was proud to pull on the shirt again and I wanted to go out there and show what I can do.”