GOMEL, Belarus (AP) — After a disappointing draw last week, France is now focused on second place in its World Cup qualifying group.
The 1998 world champions visit Belarus on Tuesday, and a win in Group I will edge them closer to clinching at least a playoff spot for next year's tournament in Brazil. With two matches left, France trails world champion Spain by three points but is five points ahead of Finland. Belarus is last and can no longer qualify.
"We're targeting a second-place finish to reach the playoffs," France midfielder Mathieu Valbuena said. "We were not the favorites in this group but at one stage we dreamt of the top spot. Now we must get back to reality, which is the playoffs in November. We must think positive and find the net again."
The top teams automatically qualify for the World Cup while eight of the nine second-place teams go into the playoffs. France winger Franck Ribery is doubtful for the match because of injury and his absence would be a blow to France. The pacy winger was recently named best player in Europe after leading Bayern Munich to success in the Champions League, the Bundesliga and the German Cup last season.
"I can't say that I'm 100 percent fit but I hope to play," Ribery told French daily L'Equipe. Also, Karim Benzema's starting spot is under threat. The Real Madrid striker has not scored in his last 15 games for France.
Benzema is the most prolific player in the current France squad with 15 goals from 60 matches. France coach Didier Deschamps has backed him despite a nagging lack of efficiency at the international level. Benzema last scored for France in a friendly, a 4-0 win over Estonia in June 2012.
Deschamps paired Benzema with Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud in the 0-0 draw in Tbilisi against Georgia. Benzema was replaced in the 62nd minute by Marseille striker Pierre-Andre Gignac. Giroud could be given the chance on Tuesday to play up front as a lone striker the way he does at Arsenal.
France has not found the net in its last five games, the worst drought in its history. "We can't win a match if we don't manage to open the scoring," Deschamps said. "We can do and we must do more." France beat Belarus 3-1 last year in World Cup qualifying. But Belarus has created problems for France in the past, winning 1-0 three years ago and drawing 1-1 in June 2011 in a European Championship qualifier.
Midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba were suspended for the Georgia match but will be available in Belarus. Spain has the week off but will host Belarus and Georgia in October while France will take on Finland.