CLAIREFONTAINE, France (AP) — France coach Didier Deschamps knows the team's likeliest route to the World Cup goes via the playoff, and that means a win in Friday's friendly against Australia can help its chances of getting to Brazil.
With Spain in a commanding position, France has almost no chance of topping Group I, meaning the playoff for second-place teams is beckoning next month. France's FIFA ranking has slipped to a lowly 25th, so it needs to win Friday's friendly against Australia and its last qualifier against Finland four days later to have a stronger chance of being among the seeded teams when the draw is made.
Spain is level on points with second-place France but has home games against Belarus and Georgia. "Yes, there is something at stake. They're not the two most exciting games, but they're internationals. I don't want people easing up and lacking concentration because 'It's only Australia, it's Finland,'" Deschamps said Monday. "Both are important, because we can earn some points, and given what awaits us in November that can help us be among the seeded teams."
France's form has been patchy throughout qualifying, with the highlight being an excellent second-half performance in the 1-1 draw away to Spain, and the lows being a tepid 0-0 draw away to Georgia and a terrible first-half performance against Belarus last month. France trailed 1-0 at halftime and 2-1 before rallying with late goals to win 4-2 and put some gloss on an otherwise poor showing.
"Unfortunately we alternate the good and the bad," Deschamps said. "There was a fear of failure. Belarus played really well in the first half - I had never seen them play that well - but we responded well in the second half."
A recurring problem for Deschamps has been the lack of goals from forwards, and with one qualifier remaining it is still unclear who is France's first choice up front. Karim Benzema has not scored in 15 internationals and was dropped against Belarus, with Olivier Giroud taking his place but not scoring, either. It is unlikely that they will play together, as that has not worked on the occasions Deschamps has paired them alongside each other.
"The hierarchy can evolve," Deschamps said. "One of them will start on Friday. Although both of them can play we're probably going to go for one center forward. They have different profiles, with different qualities."
In a recent interview with France Football magazine, Giroud put his foot down when he said he now deserves a chance to be France's recognized No. 1 in attack. "All the players should have that ambition. It's not a problem, whether it's Oliver or another player," said Deschamps, who suggested Benzema's confidence is low.
"He's lacking efficiency," Deschamps said. "It could be linked (to confidence), as these things often go hand in hand." Facing Australia, which lost 6-0 against Brazil last month, could be the perfect chance for Benzema to start scoring again, and his Real Madrid teammate Raphael Varane has backed him to silence the doubters.
"Of course he's aware of the criticism and he is thinking about things," Varane said. "I think he's trying to take a step back from it all. He's aware of the expectation level there is and he can handle it when things go well and when they don't."