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September 24, 2017

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Odds stacked against France in qualifier against Spain

PARIS -- Hit by injuries and reeling from a surprise 1-0 loss to Japan, with its strikers struggling to score and a patched-up defense looking far from secure, France has enough to worry about without even thinking about Spain's quality ahead of their World Cup qualifier on Tuesday.

Both teams won their opening two qualifiers to share the lead in Group I.

But while Spain cruised into top gear with a 4-0 away win in Belarus on Friday — extending their winning run in qualifiers to 24 — France's confidence was dented by a late goal at home against Japan in a friendly the same night.

"We're playing against the best team in the world, they've won two European Championships and the World Cup, so they are still the team to beat," France defender Laurent Koscielny said. "They have a lot of similarities with Barcelona, we know all about their qualities. It will be a very hard match."

Spain last failed to win a qualifying match for either the World Cup or European Championship in September 2007, when it drew 1-1 with Iceland in Reykjavik, and recent history is not in France's favor.

Spain beat France 2-0 in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal, Laurent Blanc's last game in charge before Didier Deschamps replaced him.

"In the best of all worlds, I don't think we'll have that many chances against Spain," Deschamps said. "We will have to defend well and, when we do get chances, we'll have to be far more efficient than we were against Japan."

Still, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque expects France to pose a threat.

"They have forwards who can play the ball long, and they have added some fresh and physical powerful players," he said. "It will be a complicated game."

Blanc played ultra-conservatively against the Spanish and the move backfired. Deschamps has pledged to be more ambitious, but the players are uncertain about the best approach.

"As soon as we have the ball, we have to use it well, keep hold of it and launch counterattacks," said Koscielny said. "There are different solutions: either to do what Chelsea did when they won (in the Champions League against Barcelona), and play very deep, or to close them down high up the pitch."

In other matches, England looks to cement its grip on Group H when it travels to play Warsaw in Poland, and Germany's confidence will be sky-high for the visit of Sweden after routing Ireland 6-1 in Dublin. Germany has won its three games so far in Group C.

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