France enter the final stretch of UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying in a healthy position. Unbeaten in 13 matches, Les Bleus are a point clear at the top of Group D and have the luxury of finishing with two games on home soil against Albania on Friday and second-placed Bosnia and Herzegovina four days later. Yet experience has taught coach Laurent Blanc to take nothing for granted.
Blanc's players find themselves in an almost identical situation to that of Gérard Houllier's charges 18 years ago and, as the current France boss knows only too well, that campaign did not end in celebration. Needing only a point from their last two encounters, at home to Israel and Bulgaria, a side boasting the talents of Marcel Desailly, David Ginola, Jean-Pierre Papin, Eric Cantona, and of course Blanc himself, succumbed to a pair of shock defeats at the Parc des Princes.
"I knew you'd make reference to that," said Blanc, when asked whether a repeat of the 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifying failure might be in prospect. "The media never miss a chance to talk about it, although I don't know if the current players followed those games. But you can draw parallels because once again we have two home matches left against teams capable of causing us problems."
Like Blanc, Houllier had endured a poor start with France, losing a friendly before overseeing another defeat in his first competitive game away to Bulgaria. The side then recovered impressively, winning six and drawing one before the late collapse. Nearly two decades later, Blanc's men kicked off a new era in the same fashion, succumbing away to Norway and then at home to Belarus in their Group D opener. Again, the fightback has been superb, with five victories and two draws in the last seven qualifiers.
This is where Blanc would like the comparisons to end. "When you start a qualifying campaign you know certain games will be more important than others," the 45-year-old added. "But it's better to find yourself under pressure trying to achieve something than trying to avoid something. We have to make sure the pressure has a positive effect."
Superstitious fans may feel the gods are conspiring against the two-time European champions again after a weekend that saw Franck Ribéry, Bacary Sagna, Éric Abidal and Blaise Matuidi injured playing for their clubs. Like Philippe Mexès, Karim Benzema and Laurent Koscielny, they have been ruled out of the Albania match.
Blanc will nevertheless be confident of claiming a second win against Josip Kuže's Albanians, although with Bosnia and Herzegovina – one point adrift – strong favourites to beat Luxembourg at home, the battle for top spot should carry over to Tuesday.
If that transpires, there will be more than a few nerves fluttering in Stade de France – with the ghost of Emil Kostadinov not far away either. On 17 November 1993, the hosts were seconds away from qualifying when, with the scores tied at 1-1, David Ginola sent over a wayward cross; Bulgaria countered, Luboslav Penev fed Kostadinov and, with Blanc struggling to get across, the forward rifled in a ferocious shot.
As far as Blanc is concerned, the aim now is to avoid such a tantalising finale. "We know how many points we need but we're not going to think about the maths," he stressed. "We just want to win both games by playing good football and scoring goals. We'd only start making calculations in the last six or seven minutes."
Should it go to the wire, however, Blanc will be forgiven for urging his players to keep the ball in the corner, rather than crossing, as the seconds tick down.
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