There were grains of hope for a Wales side whose formidable task against the world champions reached the realms of the impossible after the unfathomable dismissal of Liverpool’s Nico Williams.
The goalkeeping performance of Danny Ward was a huge statement of intent for him, in the fight to edge out Wayne Hennessey for the opening European Championships game against Switzerland in Baku on Saturday week.
The Leicester keeper clawed out a Paul Pogba header with a save of supreme quality and within minutes had repelled a Karim Benzema penalty, leaping low with a strong right hand.
Neco Williams’ early red card meant Wales had to toil for more than an hour with 10 men
France striker Karim Benzema had his penalty saved by Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward
France: Lloris,Pavard (Kounde 46), Varane,Kimpembe, Lucas (Digne 46), Pogba (Coman 63), Tolisso (Sissoko 64), Rabiot, Griezmann (Ben Yedder 84), Benzema, Mbappe-Lottin (Dembele 73).
Subs Not Used: Mandanda, Maignan, Dubois, Lenglet, Thuram.
Goals: Mbappe-Lottin 35,Griezmann 48,Dembele 79.
Wales: Ward, Gunter, Rodon, Mepham (Ben Davies 59), Connor Roberts, Wilson (Ramsey 59), Allen (Levitt 59), Neco Williams, Morrell (Colwill 83), James (Brooks 73), Bale (Moore 58).
Subs Not Used: Hennessey, Adam Davies, Cabango, Norrington-Davies, Tyler Roberts, Jonathan Williams.
Sent Off: Neco Williams (26).
Ref: Luis Godinho (Portugal).
The greater defensive rigour that Page has brought to the side since taking over from Ryan Giggs was also evident in a rearguard which, despite the scoreline, largely coped with a relentless France side.
Before the red card, there was also the sight of Daniel James and Gareth Bale, providing the pace on opposite flanks which can pose a threat in Azerbaijan, where Wales also face Turkey in their tough group. But Portugal referee Luis Godinho’s decision to dismiss Williams – which Page is considering appealing – turned this into a survival mission.
A penalty awarded against Williams had some justification. The 20-year-old’s arms were out in front of him as Benzema followed up with a close-range shot, after Ward had kept the Pogba header out.
Kylian Mbappe scored on the rebound after Adrien Rabiot’s deflected shot was saved by Ward
But to dismiss the player for what was thus deemed a deliberate attempt to keep the ball out was unjust. Even France’s players urged Godinho not to dismiss Williams who had, until then, been effective in marshalling Pogba when deployed in an unusual left midfield role.
‘It spoilt the game for them as well because they wanted a competitive game,’ Page reflected last night. ‘The fourth official apologised just after half time and said “Sorry coach.”’
Ward, who has played for Wales more times than Leicester City this season, seemed to have repelled France again when he managed to get his left foot to a shot that was deflected by Antoine Griezmann.
Forward Antoine Griezmann curled in a beautiful second goal early into the second half
But Kylian Mbappe reacted more sharply than Chris Mepham to send his side ahead.
The night provided a measure of why England badly need to avoid France in the round of 16. Benzema’s recall after six years in the international wilderness paid a dividend. France’s exchange of the ball was rapid, precise and imaginative, with a second goal which was artistry.
Mbappe rolled a ball Pogba had played up under his heels to Griezmann who curled beyond Ward. Joe Rondon provided too much space. Substitute Moussa Dembele scored the third, pouncing after Benzema’s shot rebounded off the post.
‘To concede the goals we did – we’ll look back at that,’ Page said. ‘But the positives for us are the minutes that players have got on the pitch.’ Joe Allen, who had not played a game for club or country since March, completed an hour. Aaron Ramsey, who Wales are going to need the best of, almost put James in to score. Defeats don’t tend to build confidence but this one should.
Substitute Ousmane Dembele struck France’s third goal after Benzema had hit the post