The Mercury

France finding form of old for Belarus clash

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PARIS: France coach Laurent Blanc is hoping the surprising­ly good form of his squad helps get “Les Bleus” back on a positive footing as they seek revenge against Belarus in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Minsk.

Italy, Sweden and Croatia are also among the more fancied teams in action tonight as qualifying for next year’s championsh­ips – to be held jointly in Poland and Ukraine – resumes after a two-month break.

In that time the spotlight has fallen, somewhat unfavourab­ly, on top officials at the French football federation (FFF) after an insider submitted evidence that alleged proposals were afoot to introduce race quotas at youth level.

Blanc, who was hired in the wake of France’s disastrous World Cup campaign in 2010 – where leading players voted on a players’ strike – was named in the scandal but cleared following an internal investigat­ion.

Since replacing Raymond Domenech at the helm of the multiracia­l Bleus, Blanc has steered France to top spot in Group D with four wins from five games. Their only defeat so far was against Belarus at the Stade de France last year.

“We didn’t play well (against Belarus),” conceded Blanc following a two-day training camp which calmed any lingering concerns he had about the match fitness of key players.

“We were too sluggish and lacked bite against a team who defended well and scored a goal against us when we were defending badly. On Friday, we will have to defend well.”

Bayern Munich midfielder Franck Ribery’s season finished on May 7, while defenders Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra both played in the Champions League final for Barcelona and Manchester United respective­ly last Saturday.

On this week’s evidence at training, Blanc is relaxed: “We were starting to wonder if the players had already entered holiday mode, but the past two days I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

“Franck looks quick and is raring to go. Abidal is desperate to play, and so is Evra.”

Italy are in a similar position to France, sitting top of Group C with four wins from five games ahead of Estonia’s visit to Modena.

The Azzurri have never been beaten by Estonia, although the Baltic minnows gave the World Cup winners a fright last September in Tallinn by taking the lead in their group opener, only to lose 2-1.

Italy would do well to be wary of an Estonia side which produced an eye-catching 3-1 win against Serbia in their only away match to date in the campaign.

Sweden, meanwhile, head to Chisinau for a match against Moldova which could see them close the gap to runaway Group E leaders the Netherland­s.

Coach Erik Hamren will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovi­c after the AC Milan striker recently suffered an ankle knock.

Sweden have two games in hand on both the Netherland­s and thirdplace­d Hungary. Victory in Chisinau would allow Hamren’s side to close the gap on the Dutch to six points ahead of their next qualifier against Finland next week.

In other matches, Croatia host Georgia in Split with the chance of leapfroggi­ng Euro 2004 champions Greece – who host Malta tomorrow – at the top of Group F.

In Group A, Germany can consolidat­e their five-point lead over Belgium with victory against Austria in Vienna, while Turkey can jump up to second place if they beat Belgium in Brussels. – Sapa-AFP

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