The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
France looks to capitalize on World Cup confidence as it takes on a Spain team in transition
PARIS - One team faces two years without a competitive match, and the other needs to learn how to become competitive again.
For France coach Didier Deschamps, Thursday's match against Spain is the first in a long series of friendly matches in the build up to the 2016 European Championship, which France will host.
For Spain coach Vincente del Bosque, it is the first step in what promises to be a tough rebuilding process following the national team's early exit from the World Cup.
With Spain's aura of invincibility gone, a full-strength France team will be looking to treat its home fans to a morale-boosting win at Stade de France.
Here are some things to know about the match:
HARDCORE IN PLACE
France coach Didier Deschamps took a long time to find the nucleus of his squad when he replaced Laurent Blanc after the 2012 European Championship.
He found it just in time for the World Cup — where France lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Germany — and is unlikely to experiment too much ahead of Euro 2016.
"Even if I will have to bring in new players at some stage, it's important for me to keep a hardcore of players," Deschamps said. "I hope that the vast majority of players who are here come back in one month" for matches against Portugal and Armenia.
France is in Group I for Euro 2016 along with Portugal, Denmark, Armenia, Serbia and Albania but all matches played against host France do not count in terms of points and serve only as friendlies.
France also plays Serbia in Belgrade on Sunday.
OUT WITH THE OLD
Expect some unfamiliar names on the Spain team with six new faces poised to make their international debuts.
Among them are Atletico Madrid midfielder Raul Garcia, Valencia striker Paco Alcacer, Athletic Bilbao defender Mikel San Jose and Espanyol goalkeeper Kiko Casilla — who all got their first call-ups by coach Vicente del Bosque.
Garcia's chances of making his debut increased after Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta was ruled out because of pain in his left knee.
Real Madrid right back Dani Carvajal and Bilbao holding midfielder Ander Iturraspe are also poised to play. They have been included in previous Spain squads but without getting a game.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Spain defender Sergio Ramos wants to forget what happened in Brazil and fully intends to drag Spain back to the top.
Spain was beaten by the Netherlands and Chile in its first two group games at the World Cup and made a quick exit from the tournament.
"It's a joy to face a new challenge of (defending) the Euro Cup (European Championship) and begin a new era," the Real Madrid centre half said. "We have to get back to the way we were and believe that we can achieve big things."
Ramos, who has made 120 appearances for Spain, is someone the new generation will turn to.
"We are here to help them, to create a good atmosphere for all the new players so they can integrate," he said.
With Franck Ribery announcing his international retirement after missing out on the World Cup because of a back injury, there will be increased pressure on Karim Benzema to be the decisive player in France's attack.
Benzema scored three goals at the World Cup to take his tally to 24 goals in 71 internationals, and finally stepped out of Ribery's shadow.
"Karim's an experiened and important player for France," Deschamps said. "He must continue to be our leader in attack."
As a sign of faith, Deschamps sat next to Benzema in the middle of the front row as France posed for its team photo on Tuesday.
The 26-year-old Real Madrid forward, who is fully settled with his club, should be approaching his peak years as a forward.
"The focus will be on him more now," France centre half Mamadou Sakho said. "But he's big enough to handle that."
Even though he now plays for one of the biggest clubs in the world after joining Barcelona, utility defender Jeremy Mathieu is poised to make only his third appearance for France.
The 30-year-old Mathieu was overlooked for the World Cup squad despite an excellent season with Valencia, where he stood out in central defence after making the switch from left back.
With Laurent Koscielny sidelined because of a head injury, the burly Mathieu has a chance to impress Deschamps as he tries to muscle his way into his plans for Euro 2016.
Mathieu's versatility makes him a good backup for Koscielny, Raphael Varane or Mamadou Sakho at centre half, and he could also keep the pressure on veteran left back Patrice Evra, who will be 35 when the tournament starts.
Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.
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