A time might come in this summer’s European Championships when Wales are forced to defend for their lives with ten men. In which case, this trip to France might turn out to be rather useful. That time might not come, though, and it was hard to avoid the sense that, in the wider scheme of Welsh preparations, this friendly offered little of what it was supposed to for Rob Page and his troops.
The controversial dismissal of Neco Williams, after around 25 minutes, transformed this match from a welcome test into an impossible task for Page’s side. Not least because France, the world champions, unleashed a frighteningly strong team in Nice. Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann are hard enough to stop with a full team, let alone with only nine outfielders.
Of course, it was not completely worthless for Wales. There will be moments of sustained pressure this summer, in the group stages and possibly beyond, and Wales defended commendably for large spells against France. They had their chances, too, with their counter-attacking threat posing a fair few questions of the hosts.
There was also positivity to be found in some of their defensive performances, and in the absence of any obvious injuries. Joe Rodon defended well, and goalkeeper Danny Ward produced an exceptional stop from the penalty that followed the red card. But the point remains that this was not the night they had envisaged, or indeed wanted.
Page had made no secret of the fact that this was more of a fitness exercise than a competitive contest in his mind, saying beforehand that his substitutions were planned irrespective of the events on the pitch.
How frustrating it must have been, then, when the red card changed the entire shape and feel of the match. Wales wanted to play France for a reason, as they believe it provides them with good preparation for their opening Euros game against Switzerland, but they evidently did not want to play them with just 10 men.
Not only did the early loss of Williams rip the attacking adventure from the Welsh side, it also meant that Page’s players had to spend much of the game chasing after the ball. And in truth the red card cannot have been what France wanted either, given their own planned preparations for a group containing both Germany and Portugal.
At least Page had around 25 minutes to see his team go toe-to-toe, eleven v eleven, against the world champions. Wales had started well, controlling the French threat and causing problems on the counter-attack through the speed of Daniel James, and they looked comfortable.
That all changed when Ward made a superb reaction stop from Karim Benzema, whose second effort was then blocked from close range by the arm of Williams. The Liverpool defender had denied a goal but it still felt harsh, given the circumstances of the match, when the red card was shown.
On his first appearance for France in nearly six years, following his controversial omission from the national side, Benzema was denied from the spot by another sensational stop by Ward, the Leicester City goalkeeper who looks to have made the No 1 jersey his own.
The depleted Wales side was always going to struggle to manage the French threat, though, and Mbappe soon prodded them into the lead, on the rebound, after Ward had reached a foot to Griezmann’s deflected effort.
Griezmann had a goal of his own a few minutes after the break, when it looked as if France might turn this into a drubbing. Seizing on Mbappe’s artful flick, Griezmann looked up and curled the ball into Ward’s top corner. It was a moment of class that reminded Wales why France are seen by many as the favourites to win the Euros this summer.
Ousmane Dembele added a late third, converting into the empty net after Benzema had struck the post. Before that, James had gone close with another strike, this time from Aaron Ramsey’s pass. That was a positive for Wales to seize upon, but they would have hoped for more – and they surely would have had more were it not for the red card.
France (4-3-1-2): Lloris 7; Pavard 6 (Kounde 45), Varane 7, Kimpembe 6, Hernandez 6 (Digne 45); Pogba 7 (Coman 64), Tolisso 6 (Sissoko 64), Rabiot 6; Griezmann 8; Benzema 6, Mbappe 8
Wales (3-4-3): Ward 7; Mepham 5 (Davies 59), Rodon 7, Gunter 6; C Roberts 6, Allen 6 (Levitt 59), Morrell (Colwill 83), N Williams 4; Bale 6 (Moore 59), Wilson 5 (Ramsey 59), James 6 (Brooks 72)
Referee: Luis Godinho (POR)