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Soccer-Stars align for France as World Cup playoff looms

Reuters

By Julien Pretot

PARIS, Oct 16 (Reuters) - It has been a rough year for France but things finally seem to be clicking as 'Les Bleus' gear up for a playoff to reach the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.

France ended their Group I qualifying campaign with a 3-0 win over Finland on Tuesday, finishing in second place behind world and European champions Spain.

The French, who had not scored in five games before beating Belarus 4-2 in September then thrashing Australia 6-0 in a friendly on Friday, are unlikely to be seeded when the draw is made in Zurich on Monday.

That could leave them with a tricky tie against the likes of Portugal, Greece, Croatia or Ukraine in the playoffs scheduled for Nov. 15 and 19.

However, midfielder Samir Nasri told reporters the other teams would be keen to avoid Les Bleus.

"I don't think any team will be happy to draw France," he said.

Coach Didier Deschamps was clear on which side he did not want to face with a World Cup slot on the line.

"The team to avoid ... is Portugal because they have Cristiano Ronaldo, but all the teams are formidable," he said.

Deschamps was happy with the performance of the front four - Olivier Giroud, Franck Ribery, Nasri and Mathieu Valbuena - and hinted he may keep the same team for the playoffs.

"For the big majority of them, yes," he added.

Ribery has been in fine form for France lately, scoring six and setting up nine of their last 24 goals.

His pace inspired France on Tuesday, with the winger scoring a screamer into the top corner for the opening goal and setting up Karim Benzema's goal three minutes from time.

The only cause for French concern seems to be in defence, where fullback Patrice Evra does not seem to be at his best and centre back Eric Abidal lacks sharpness.

Deschamps could be tempted to bring in Real Madrid's Raphael Varane to tighten things up.

"Finland pierced through our defence twice," said Deschamps, who had asked fullbacks Evra and Mathieu Debuchy to play high up the pitch. "Perhaps we need to be a tad safer behind. It's a difficult balance to find."

Evra believes France will be ready for their bid to secure a place at their 10th consecutive major tournament.

"If we can cope with the pressure (of the playoffs) it should be alright, whoever we have to face," he added.

"If we are at our level, we should go through. I'm very confident."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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