France, England under pressure in WCup qualifying
Things have changed so dramatically for France over the past decade that a scoreless draw against Belgium last month in a friendly was praised as a good result for the former world champions.
Ahead of its World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Belarus, the French team is second in Group I, one point behind Spain after losing 1-0 at home to football's new leading country in March. With only a few hopes of gaining direct qualification for the tournament in Brazil, defeat is not an option.
''Our objective is to get six points to ensure we finish at least second in our group,'' France coach Didier Deschamps said.
While France will be hoping for its strikers to end a miserable run of four matches without a goal - Karim Benzema has not scored for Les Bleus in more than a year - England has limited attacking options in Group H ahead of its double-header against Moldova and Ukraine in Group H after Wayne Rooney pulled out of the squad with a head injury.
In-form Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge missed training with a thigh injury earlier this week and is in doubt for the match against Moldova at Wembley Stadium on Friday. England is second in Group H, two points behind Montenegro with a game in hand and with four matches left.
England then travels to Kiev to play third-place Ukraine on Sept. 10.
France was a dominant force in world football at the turn of the century, even surpassing Brazil at the top of the FIFA rankings. Spurred by the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, it won the 1998 World Cup and the European Championship two years later.
But the country has only managed to reach one quarterfinal in its past three tournaments - losing to Spain at that stage of Euro 2012 under former coach Laurent Blanc. Since the 2010 World Cup debacle, where the team crashed out miserably and the players went on strike at training, the team has improved but is only 23rd in the rankings, sandwiched between Peru and Ghana.
Franck Ribery, who rose to prominence during the 2006 World Cup where France ended runner-up, said his teammates would play with a different mindset if they become a formidable team again.
Ribery, one of the team's most experienced players, enjoyed a tremendous season with Bayern and was been voted UEFA player of the year.
''What I've been living at Bayern is completely different,'' Ribery said. ''At Bayern, we never ask ourselves questions. With France, when a player misses, he loses confidence, he is afraid of being criticized.
''But we'll try to make everyone regain confidence, lift the pressure. There are some things that we don't do, that we don't dare doing like long crosses, while at Bayern, these are just automatic things.''
Benzema has not scored for the national team since his two goals against Estonia in a friendly before last year's European Championship. Deschamps said the Real Madrid forward could play in a different role in Tbilisi, alongside Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud.
''It could be an option to push Karim slightly out wide,'' Deschamps said.
Chelsea pair Fernando Torres and Juan Mata have been left out of Spain's qualifier against Finland, with coach Vicente Del Bosque explaining he had only picked the players ''in the best form.''
Spain will be missing injured midfielders Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso but Del Bosque does not seem too worried ahead of the trip to Helsinki.
''We have a number of important midfielders missing,'' Del Bosque told AS sports daily. ''But those that are here will do a good job because they are in excellent shape. We are relaxed about the trip to Finland due to the players we ultimately have selected.''
Rooney is facing three weeks out after cutting his forehead during a training-ground collision with teammate Phil Jones at Manchester United. Jones and right back Glen Johnson are unavailable, too.
''Moldova also lost in the last minute to a very fortunate goal against Montenegro, otherwise they'd have an even better points tally than five,'' England coach Roy Hodgson said. ''I don't think I need to caution the players or guard against complacency and I don't think I've seen any signs of that in the games we've played. If I did think any complacency was creeping in I'd be very quick to move in and quash it.''
In Group C, Germany midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger won't play against Austria and the Faeroe Islands after injuring his right ankle. Germany leads its qualifying group with five wins and one draw from six games, five points clear of Austria, Sweden and Ireland.
Austria hasn't won in Germany in 14 matches since 1931 and was beaten by its neighbors 2-1 a year ago in Vienna.
''We have a score to settle,'' Austria winger Marko Arnautovic said. ''We won't hide ourselves. Germany knows that and will show respect for us.''
Austria will miss suspended midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger while striker Marc Janko is doubtful with a muscle injury.
''We have proven we can play good football and we can hurt the big teams,'' Austria midfielder David Alaba said.
Italy, which leads the Group B standings, plays second-place Bulgaria on Friday and the Czech Republic four days later. In Group D, the Netherlands face Estonia and then Andorra. The Dutch team has won all six qualifiers so far and can seal a place at next year's tournament if it wins both matches.
Eric Willemsen in Vienna, Austria, contributed to this report.