France are within touching distance of qualifying but they have found their ambitions tempered by the worst injury crisis of coach Lurent Blanc’s tenure ahead of Friday’s visit of Albania.
Les Bleus need just four points from Friday’s game and Tuesday’s home match with nearest rivals Bosnia-Herzegovina to secure top spot in Group D and with it a berth in Poland and Ukraine next summer and having been unbeaten in their past 13 encounters the smart money would normally be on them attaining the necessary results.
However, injuries to key players have punched holes in Blanc’s first-choice starting XI, meaning he will be forced to rely on untested understudies in his side’s final two qualifying matches.
The absence of Karim Benzema with a groin injury has given Blanc his biggest headache, as the France coach’s unswerving faith in the Real Madrid striker means other forwards have not been given opportunities to lead the attack.
“It’s true that Benzema’s absence is a really big blow,” said Paris Saint-Germain winger Jeremy Menez.
“But we have a bigger squad with quality players who can cover for his absence, even though it won’t be straightforward.”
Blanc’s quandary was further complicated when Menez’s PSG team-mate Kevin Gameiro, Benzema’s most likely replacement, was also ruled out of Friday’s game with a knee problem.
Blanc reacted by calling up Lazio striker Djibril Cisse, who last represented his country in the 2-1 defeat by hosts South Africa that heralded the end of France’s disastrous World Cup campaign last year.
Cisse’s summons means Blanc has now recalled 15 of the 23 players who made up the French squad in South Africa, while the 30-year-old’s nine goals in 40 caps make him the most accomplished international goalscorer in the squad.
Cisse will compete for the right to spearhead the French attack against Marseille’s Loic Remy and Bafetimbi Gomis of Lyon, who was rewarded for his fine start to the season with a first call-up in two years.
Blanc must also do without in-form Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery (calves), meaning Chelsea’s Florent Malouda can return to his preferred position on the left flank.
Lyon’s Anthony Reveillere will deputise for Bacary Sagna (fractured leg) at right-back, while Valencia’s Jeremy Mathieu has been awarded a first call-up since 2007 due to concerns over the fitness of Eric Abidal (thigh).
France could qualify automatically with victory, but only in the unlikely event that Bosnia lose at home to Luxembourg, who sit bottom of Group D with just four points to their name.
Despite their ascendancy in the group, France’s situation conjures unwelcome memories of the conclusion to their 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign.
A side featuring Blanc at centre-back needed just a single point from home games with Israel and Bulgaria, but lost to last-minute goals in both matches in one of the most traumatic episodes in the country’s sporting history.
“The media never miss a chance to talk about it, although I don’t know if the current players followed those games,” said Blanc this week.
“But you can draw parallels because once again we have two home games remaining against teams that are capable of causing us problems.”
Les Bleus prevailed 2-1 when they met Albania in Tirana last month, weathering a nervous conclusion to the game after a soft goal gifted to Erjon Bogdani seconds into the second period allowed the hosts to halve the deficit.
Albania coach Josif Kuze has pledged to try out “some new players” at Stade de France.
His side are yet to win away from home in Group D and suffered the ignominy of a 2-1 defeat at Luxembourg in their last fixture after having two men sent off.