Soccer

France warms up for Spain by beating Georgia 3-1

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PARIS (AP)

France beat Georgia 3-1 to go top of its World Cup qualifying group on Friday, and pile the pressure on Spain ahead of their showdown next week.

After missing early chances, France took the lead on the stroke of halftime when Olivier Giroud headed in winger Mathieu Valbuena's freekick from the right.

Valbuena ran the show, scoring a superb second early into the second half and then setting up Franck Ribery for the third with a raking long pass.

Midfielder Alexander Kobakhidze pulled one back for Georgia with 20 minutes left.

France is two points ahead of Spain in Group I after the reigning world and European champion was surprisingly held to a 1-1 home draw by Finland.

''It's better to play Spain with a two-point lead rather than being two or three behind. But we shouldn't get carried away and start thinking we've qualified,'' France coach Didier Deschamps said. ''We're in the best position at the moment but now we have to play Spain. They are the best team in the world, even though they have shown tonight that they can also be pegged back.''

Deschamps started with Karim Benzema alongside Giroud in attack and handed international debuts to 19-year-old Real Madrid center half Raphael Varane and 20-year-old Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba.

''I was not worried about picking them,'' Deschamps said. ''People say I don't have faith in young players. But when the quality's there, I trust young players.''

Deschamps reserved special praise for Valbuena and Ribery, who played off each other intuitively.

''There is a technical understanding between them based on vivacity and playing the ball to feet,'' Deschamps said. ''Over the last few games they've combined really well.''

Ribery went close early on after darting in from the left and curling a delightful shot which beat goalkeeper Giorgi Loria before hitting the crossbar, and Varane had a goal-bound header blocked as France started brightly.

Giroud played in Benzema with a neat pass in the 16th but he placed a weak curling shot too close to Loria.

Georgia hardly ventured out of its half in the first 30 minutes, but when it did, France was almost caught out when center half Aleksander Amisulashvili's header was saved by `keeper Hugo Lloris.

Moments later, Giroud held his head in his hands after running onto Valbuena's excellent pass over the top, chesting the ball down expertly but then trying an extravagant lob with the outside of his foot which sailed over.

Benzema fared worse soon after when he scuffed a shot horribly wide from 10 meters.

Georgia had no trouble hitting the target and Kobakhidze forced Lloris into a magnificent tip-over in the 42nd with a stinging shot.

The notoriously difficult Stade de France crowd mercifully stayed patient for most of the half, and Giroud rewarded them when he met Valbuena's pinpoint freekick with a glancing header into the bottom corner.

Valbuena went from provider to finisher two minutes after the break as he completed a flowing move.

Giroud collected a long pass in the left corner and flicked it to Ribery who then pushed it to Valbuena, lurking on the edge of the area. The Marseille midfielder controlled it with one touch and with the next sent the ball spinning into the top right corner.

With Georgia appealing for offside, Benzema went clean through in the 55th but Loria comfortably saved his attempted curler.

Ribery made the game safe in the 61st when he controlled Valbuena's long pass, shrugged off Zurab Khizanishvili and slotted the ball inside the left post.

''I would like to congratulate France, they really deserved it,'' Georgia coach Temuri Ketsbaia said. ''We were missing three players through suspension and we had some young players out there.''

Kobakhidze pulled a goal back in the 70th when he slammed home a loose ball.

Benzema's poor performance was compounded when he sent a hopeful shot 20 meters over the crossbar near the end. The Real Madrid striker's France drought totals 11 games and he needs a special performance against Spain to win the fans over again.

''He was missing that bit of luck, but it's true that he had a few chances,'' Deschamps said.



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