France make their first appearance at the Stade de France since the Euro 2016 final today as Didier Deschamps’ side play host to a Bulgaria side with whom they have a bit of history.
Almost three months on from their draining extra-time defeat to Portugal on a sticky night in the European Championship final, Les Bleus have moved on to their next goal, reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Their qualifying campaign did not get off to the best of starts, as Deschamps’ men were held to a goalless draw in Belarus in their Group A opener in September.
That means there is a bit of pressure on Les Bleus ahead of a double-header of games, with Bulgaria’s visit followed by a trip to Amsterdam to take on the Netherlands on Monday.
“We need to think about tomorrow before we start thinking about Monday. There are nine matches left, it will be a long road,” warned Deschamps on Thursday as his side prepare to return to the national stadium in Saint-Denis, just to the north of Paris, where a crowd of up to 70,000 is expected.
“It’s our stadium. We have played all our qualifiers there for years. We have had great moments there. Our most recent game there was not, but it’s still our stadium. It’s always a pleasure to play here,” added Deschamps, even if he acknowledged that “obviously the context is not the same as a Euro final.”
France disappointed in Belarus, although they were also guilty of missing a host of chances in the second half.
One of the guilty parties in Borisov was Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud, although he is missing this time due to a toe injury.
With Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette sidelined and still no comeback for Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, a year after the sextape blackmail scandal first came to light, Kevin Gameiro looks set to start as France’s central striker.
For 29-year-old Gameiro, who joined Atletico Madrid from Sevilla in the summer, it would be a first international start since November 2011.
“The players are fitter now but we weren’t exactly far off in Borisov, because we created chances in the second half. We just lacked the finishing touch to take the three points,” Deschamps said.
“The objective will be the same on Friday, but this time it will be with players who have mostly played up to seven games since then.”
Bulgaria began their campaign by beating Luxembourg 4-3 in Sofia with a stoppage-time winner.
Since then they have appointed a new coach, with Petar Hubchev, 52, replacing Ivaylo Petev, who has taken over Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb.
Hubchev’s current squad contains few stars, and the most exotic name at his disposal is the Brazilian-born midfielder Marcelinho of Ludogorets Razgrad.
Hubchev was in the Bulgaria team the last time they came to France for a World Cup qualifier at the Parc des Princes in Paris in November 1993.
France, with Deschamps in the side, needed only a point to clinch their place at the following year’s World Cup in the United States.
However, with 23 seconds left, Emil Kostadinov’s stunning goal secured a 2-1 Bulgarian win, eliminating the French in the most dramatic circumstances.
The French fall-out led to coach Gerard Houllier resigning, while Bulgaria went on to reach the World Cup semi-finals.
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