France under intense pressure ahead of crucial World Cup clash with Bulgaria
It has all come down to this. At the end of a nervous week, France travel to Bulgaria to play a key match in their hopes to qualify for the 2018 World Cup on Saturday evening. They currently top the group but are only a point ahead of Sweden, four off the Netherlands and five from Bulgaria.
Win in Sofia and Les Bleus will have one foot in Russia before their last group match at home against Belarus on Tuesday. Anything else and they could be in trouble -- certainly in danger of finishing second and dropping into the playoffs.
On Monday, Didier Deschamps tried his best (and he is very good at it) to normalise the occasion. At his news conference, his vocabulary was soft with no indication that France were about to play in a crucial match. "It is important" he said a few times, but added that there was no need to feel tense.
However, it is a huge game; Deschamps knows it, the players, fans and media know it. With World Cup participation at stake, the historical background of the game is big too.
Back in November 1993, Bulgaria beat France 2-1 in Paris in the last second of the game. A draw would have been enough for France to qualify. Instead, Hristo Stoichkov and his teammates went to the 1994 World Cup in the United States where they shocked the world by finishing fourth, while Eric Cantona and company watched it on television.
It took a while for France to recover from such a disappointment and it is still very much a scar on the history of the national team. But the ghosts of 1993 will be present this week and may well escort Deschamps and his men all the way to Sofia.
The fact that there is a Kostadinov (first name Georgi) in the current Bulgaria squad -- albeit not related to Emil Kostadinov who scored the winning goal in Paris 24 years ago -- is a bad omen in itself. Bulgaria have been fantastic at home this campaign (four wins in four so far) and can still snatch second place in the group. They won't feel the tension because they have nothing to lose; France, on the other hand, have everything to lose.
How on earth did the Euro 2016 finalists get to this point though? In truth, they have only themselves to blame.
There was that poor performance away in Belarus (0-0) just over a year ago, where lack of efficiency in front of goal cost them dearly; the incredible last-minute defeat in Sweden (2-1) after Hugo Lloris' blunder; and, of course, the humiliation of failing to beat Luxemburg at home last month (0-0) -- one of the worst ever performances by a French side.
The players need to forget that quickly though. They can't afford another similar performance on Saturday or against Belarus next week.
Deschamps got a few things wrong against Luxemburg and he will also need to make the right calls this time. Paul Pogba, Laurent Koscielny, Benjamin Mendy and Ousmane Dembele are all out injured which is a huge blow; Layvin Kurzawa and Djibril Sidibe are doubtful, while Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti have rarely played with each other in defence.
On top of all of that, there are worries up front. Antoine Griezmann is going through a bad time with Atletico Madrid; Olivier Giroud is not playing much at Arsenal; Thomas Lemar has been poor in his last two matches since coming back from injury at Monaco.
At least there is hope to be found in the form of PSG loanee Kylian Mbappe -- the teenager is on fire and it would be difficult to understand if Deschamps left him on the bench in favour of starting Moussa Sissoko, who is the other option on the right side.
France have a history of making life difficult for themselves in World Cup qualifiers. They needed a playoff against Ukraine in 2011, when they turned things around in spectacular fashion to go to Brazil. They needed Thierry Henry's handball in 2009 against Ireland in another playoff to qualify for the 2010 edition. In 2005, Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram rescued the team late on to seal a place at Germany 2006.
In 1998 and 2002, they qualified directly (due to hosting and then winning the tournament) and France missed the 1994 and 1990 editions entirely. So the last "normal" qualification for a World Cup was way back in 1986 -- ironically where they finished ahead of Bulgaria on goal difference to top the group.
So it looks like it has been their destiny, once again, to have to go through more struggles, pain and drama to book their place at Russia 2018. Lloris said last month that this France team always performs better when under pressure. But now it is the time to prove it.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.