PARIS — Midfielders carelessly giving the ball away and backpedalling defenders panicking under pressure.
Those were two glaringly negatives in France’s 2-1 win over Belarus on Tuesday night, a victory that sent Les Bleus to next year’s World Cup as Group A winners in Europe.
Coach Didier Deschamps was far from euphoric, and with good reason, as France has much to improve on before the tournament.
“We’re through, but I’m not blinkered or blind,” Deschamps said. “We’re not controlling things over a whole game.”
Belarus caused problems for the French and wasted a chance right at the end. It is concerning for Deschamps that the team which placed last in Group A with one win from 10 games provided such a difficult test. What would Neymar’s Brazil, free-scoring Belgium or defending champion Germany do to this defense at the 2018 World Cup?
Although protective of his players, Deschamps does not shy away from pointing out the squad’s collective shortcomings.
“We let six goals in 10 (qualifying) games; It didn’t cost us in the end but we conceded,” he said. “There’s work to be done in every department.”
European Championship runner-up France’s path to Russia was erratic: A late away loss to Sweden; a 4-0 rout of the Netherlands and an inexplicably bad 0-0 draw at home to Luxembourg. Scrappy wins against Bulgaria (1-0 away) and Belarus followed.
Deschamps, whose squad reached the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, views his side as “very good in spells” but inconsistent.
“At the highest level it’s all about efficiency,” said Deschamps, who captained France to victory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. “You have to hurt your opponent.”
Here is a look at where France is doing well and needs to improve.
Within the space of one minute, Kingsley Coman and Corentin Tolisso both gave the ball away carelessly against Belarus.
It merely underlined how much France lacks solidity when N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are not in midfield.
France led 2-0 but almost wasted the lead, with Belarus missing a sitter in the last second. Without veteran center half Laurent Koscielny, France lacks composure.
Although Raphael Varane is a regular for Real Madrid, and has 39 international caps at the age of 24, he is not a leader like Koscielny.
This impacted on 23-year-old Samuel Umtiti playing alongside him, and made for a nervous back four against a relatively weak side.
France can count on midfielder Blaise Matuidi, even when he is struggling to keep his place.
The tireless midfielder scored early in the 1-0 win away at Bulgaria, a victory which kept Les Bleus in control of Group A.
Then, on his 60th international appearance, Matuidi’s astute pass set up Antoine Griezmann’s opener against Belarus.
TRIED AND TRUSTED
Olivier Giroud does not have Karim Benzema’s skill or vision, but he keeps scoring important goals.
Giroud proved his worth to Les Bleus again, netting the second against Belarus to take his international tally to 28 goals.
His partnership with livewire Griezmann continues to function, even though they go for spells without finding each other because of Giroud’s lack of pace and mobility.
Griezmann set up Giroud against Belarus, payback for several goals Giroud has put his way since they were paired together shortly before Euro 2016.
With the door slammed shut on Benzema, whose international career has been marred by the fallout from a sex-tape scandal, Giroud and Griezmann are likely to lead the line in Russia. They scored eight of France’s 18 goals in qualifying, netting four each.
But by his own admission, Griezmann is not the electrifying forward who topped the scoring at Euro 2016.
“In terms of how I’m playing, there’s room for improvement,” he said.
The roar from the crowd as teen star Kylian Mbappe went on as a substitute against Belarus spoke volumes.
The 18-year-old forward has taken the football world by storm since bursting onto the scene with Monaco last season, and became the world’s second most expensive player after joining Paris Saint-Germain in a deal worth 180 million euros ($216 million).
Pace allied with immense dribbling skills and lethal finishing earmark him as a world-beater — although Russia may be a bit too soon.
France also has 20-year-old Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele and 21-year-old Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman.
It gives Deschamps attacking speed most coaches can only dream about.
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup