France ease pressure but lose Kante for finale

France's defender N'golo Kante (left) fights for the ball with Bulgaria's midfielder Spas Delev during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying football match between Bulgaria and France at The Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia on Oct 7, 2017.
France's defender N'golo Kante (left) fights for the ball with Bulgaria's midfielder Spas Delev during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying football match between Bulgaria and France at The Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia on Oct 7, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • France manager Didier Deschamps admitted his side were not at their best on Saturday but was relieved that Blaise Matuidi's early goal saw off Bulgaria 1-0.

Les Bleus took the lead in the third minute, as midfielder Matuidi curled home a fantastic shot from a tight angle into the far top corner.

Bulgaria more than held their own in Sofia, though, as they looked to repeat the famous win over the same opponents that sent them to the 1994 World Cup Finals, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced into a point-blank save to deny Georgi Kostadinov.

But Deschamps' side closed out the vital win which kept France top of European World Cup qualifying Group A. Three points at home to Belarus tomorrow would guarantee their ticket to Russia.

"It was a difficult match with lots of mistakes, commitment," said Deschamps, who became France's most successful coach with a 42nd victory from 68 matches since taking over the reins in 2012. That surpassed Raymond Domenech's 41 wins from 71 games (2004-2010) and Michel Hidalgo's similar mark from 75 encounters (1976-84).

"We didn't have a great second half, we had few opportunities and struggled a lot. They were more aggressive," he added.

"The essential thing (winning) is there, that's what matters, but we should be able to do better.

"We're still first - that's important - we've got one match left and (qualification) remains in our hands, so we have to win on Tuesday at the Stade de France."

Key midfielder N'Golo Kante will miss the clash, which will be of concern to his club Chelsea. France's engine limped off 10 minutes before half-time with a hamstring injury.

"No, I can't count on him for the next game," Deschamps confirmed. "It's a muscle problem behind the thigh."

Kante was replaced by Adrien Rabiot and Deschamps conceded that his side struggled without the 26-year-old.

"N'Golo had a crucial part to play, obviously," he said. "After N'Golo's injury, Adrien Rabiot came on in the same role, maybe not with the same quality as N'Golo.

"N'Golo's injury perhaps disturbed us. It's not something against Adrien, but just the fact that we found ourselves lacking in attack after N'Golo came off."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'France ease pressure but lose Kante for finale'. Print Edition | Subscribe