Injuries hurt France ahead of World Cup qualifiers
Avoiding the path of another unpredictable World Cup playoff won't be easy for France.
Going into the final two matches of the qualifying campaign, the 1998 world champions still lead Group A and remain favorites to gain automatic qualification. But France's lead over Sweden has been reduced to only one point after it managed four points out of nine in its last three games.
Another slip-up could put the French hopes of traveling to Russia next year in jeopardy. And to add spice to the challenge, France has been hit by injuries ahead of a tricky trip to Bulgaria this weekend.
"We're not going to dramatize the situation, but we have to be aware of what we're playing for, and what three points in Bulgaria would mean," France coach Didier Deschamps said.
The latest blow to France, which qualified for the 2010 and 2014 tournaments through playoffs, came on Wednesday when Paris Saint-Germain left back Layvin Kurzawa was forced to pull out of the squad with a damaged ligament in his left knee.
Kurzawa was added to a list of prominent injured French players, including Laurent Koscielny, Benjamin Mendy, Ousmane Dembele and Paul Pogba, who will miss the game at Vasil Levski Stadium and will also sit out France's final qualifier against Belarus on Oct. 10 at the Stade de France.
Kurzawa's withdrawal poses a big problem for Deschamps, who has called up the uncapped Jordan Amavi as a replacement. The Marseille defender's lack of international experience should, however, lead Deschamps to hand a starting role to Lucas Digne. It's not an ideal solution, though, because the Barcelona player has been struggling recently, with his playing time reduced to 105 minutes so far this season.
Up front, Deschamps has a different type of headache to deal with.
Teenage striker Kylian Mbappe has been so good with PSG recently that he will likely start against Bulgaria. But where?
It would make sense for Deschamps to use him as a center forward in a role perfectly suited for his speed and technical qualities, although Mbappe has been mostly playing on the right side with his club.
"He's doing great things with Paris. He's playing lots of matches and confirming what he had shown at Monaco, while improving," Deschamps said. "He's more on the right at Paris, although with a lot of freedom. He's a forward, he can play well down the middle, on the left."
Although Olivier Giroud has been struggling with playing time at Arsenal, he remains a stalwart in the French squad alongside Antoine Griezmann. With Kingsley Coman, Alexandre Lacazette, Dimitri Payet, Thomas Lemar and Moussa Sissoko all available, France's attacking talent is not lacking. Making it work is another story, as Deschamps witnessed last month in a lackluster goalless draw with Luxembourg.
The last time France missed out on the World Cup, a late goal from Emil Kostadinov ensured Bulgaria qualified instead.
It happened nearly 25 years ago, back in November 1993 when Bulgaria secured a surprising 2-1 win over a France team that included David Ginola and Eric Cantona.
Ginola was made the scapegoat for France's elimination because his missed cross in the final minute triggered Bulgaria's counterattack.
Deschamps and current Bulgaria coach Petar Hubchev were both playing that evening at the Parc des Princes.
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France beat Bulgaria 4-1 in October, but the Bulgarians have won all four qualifiers they have played at home.
Bulgaria will be missing a couple of key players, with Ivelin Popov and Yvailo Chochev both suspended for the match.