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France cautiously optimistic before Spain test

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PARIS — A new-look France team is in cautiously optimistic mood ahead of next month's crucial trip to Spain after beginning its World Cup qualifying campaign with wins against Finland and Belarus.

Since Spain knocked out a listless France on the way to its second straight European Championship title — and third consecutive major trophy — France has changed coach, with Didier Deschamps replacing Laurent Blanc, and several new players have come into the team.

Despite the rapid turnaround, Deschamps' team has managed to grind out a 1-0 win in Finland followed by a more convincing 3-1 home victory against Belarus on Tuesday.

"A leap forward," read Wednesday's headline on sports daily L'Equipe, while Deschamps said after the Belarus win that "we've fulfilled the terms of our contract with six points from the two games."

Getting a win, or even a draw, away to World Cup winner Spain on Oct. 16 remains a much different test.

"Spain remains the group favorite, they are the nation dominating football," said France midfielder Rio Mavuba, who was recalled to the squad by Deschamps more than five years after winning his last cap. "It's going to be hard, but we have to go there with hope."

But Spain's gritty 1-0 win away to Georgia on Tuesday, secured only with a late goal from Roberto Soldado, suggests the Spaniards may also be threatened by France.

"It proves how hard it is for everyone. I read Xavi's comments before the match, where he said it would be difficult (in Georgia). He wasn't just saying it," Mavuba said. "We've dealt a blow to Belarus' morale, so we can focus on Spain now. I don't think there's less pressure on us, no, because we still have to get a result. We're going to have to try and get something over there."

Deschamps, who took over from Blanc shortly after the Euro 2012 campaign ended with a dispirited 2-0 loss to Spain in the quarterfinals, insists that the team is united once more.

France was widely criticized for the behavior of some players during Euro 2012. Midfielder Samir Nasri was suspended by the French Football Federation for three games after aiming an expletive-filled rant at a journalist, and wingers Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa got one-game bans from the FFF for inappropriate behavior.

Deschamps was quick to praise his team's unity against Belarus.

"There was a good attitude, everyone wanted to work hard together," Deschamps said. "Even if everything wasn't great (on the pitch), that's the main thing to remember."

Deschamps, who coached Monaco, Juventus and Marseille at club level, is known for his pragmatic approach. But he has also shown that he can take calculated risks — all of which have paid off.

Deschamps has instilled a raw center half pairing of 22-year-old Mamadou Sakho and 23-year-old Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, with Yanga-Mbiwa looking assured against Finland on his international debut.

As well as recalling Mavuba after a long exile, Deschamps gambled on starting the injury-prone Abou Diaby away to Finaland. Diaby, who did not even start a single match last season for Arsenal, responded with the winning goal.

With Diaby injured for the Belarus game, Deschamps replaced him with Etienne Capoue, and he set France on its way with the first goal.

One worry for Deschamps is the lack of efficiency of his strikers, who have now gone six games without scoring.

Although Benzema has not scored in 12 games for club and country, he again set up a goal, creating France's third for Franck Ribery.

"I didn't score, but it doesn't matter," said Benzema, who also provided the pass for Abou Diaby's goal in Helsinki. "The main thing is that we won and that we're improving."

The partnership between Benzema and Olivier Giroud, with Benzema in a different role out wide on the right and Giroud playing through the middle, caused Belarus problems throughout the match and Deschamps may feel encouraged enough to stick with it against Spain.

He will have to replace Yanga-Mbiwa, however, as the Montpellier player is suspended after picking up successive yellow cards.

Jerome Pugmire can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire