PARIS (AP) – Laurent Blanc's resurgent France team looks to extend its unbeaten run to 11 matches against Chile on Wednesday, and to continue its recent good form ahead of next month's crucial European Championship qualifiers.
Since losing his opening two matches in charge, Blanc has won eight and drawn two. More than that, he has got France playing attacking football again, and players once wracked by nerves are no longer scared to express themselves.
''We have a good team. It's up to us to keep this run going and to keep getting better,'' France striker Karim Benzema said. ''We've started to get the fans back on our side.''
Fans turned their backs on France after last year's World Cup debacle under Raymond Domenech. But Blanc has turned things around and France is at the top of its Euro 2012 qualifying group.
''He's a great coach. He's brought that football touch along with him,'' Benzema told RMC radio in an interview Monday. ''We're trying to play attractive football, to score goals. There's a good feeling within the squad, a second wind.''
Benzema in particular has thrived under Blanc, who severely criticized him at the start of last season for carrying too much weight. Back then, Blanc issued Benzema an ultimatum: get fit, or risk losing your place in the France team.
Benzema responded by scoring crucial goals in European qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Luxembourg, and further enhanced his reputation with goals in wins against England and Brazil. In addition, he scored 26 goals in 48 games for Real Madrid.
France's return to form has coincided with Benzema's rise to prominence - and his gradual shedding of excess weight.
''I've lost seven or eight kilos (15-17 pounds) compared to the same period last year,'' said Benzema, who has scored eight goals in seven offseason friendly matches. ''I'm carrying on where I left off in the second part of last season. I'm feel strong in my mind and in my legs.''
Chile may be different to what awaits his team in September's frenetic Euro 2012 qualifiers against Albania and Romania. But Blanc expects Chile, which reached the Copa America quarterfinals last month, to provide a stiff test that his players need at this early stage of the season.
''Chile is a good team, you saw that during the Copa America,'' Blanc said. ''Before you had Brazil and Argentina in South America, but now Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico and Chile are among the good teams in world football. It will be a good test for us.''
With Adil Rami suspended for the qualifier against Albania, and Philippe Mexes still making his way back from a knee operation, Blanc must test out a new center-half pairing against Chile.
Also, Blanc still has not decided who his long-term captain is going to be. Marseille midfielder Alou Diarra, Chelsea winger Florent Malouda, Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri and Mexes have all worn the armband since Blanc took over.
''I would like things to take care of themselves, but that hasn't happened,'' Blanc said, lamenting the lack of a natural leader in his team. ''If there was an obvious choice, we would already have made it.''
Blanc has some injury concerns ahead of Wednesday's match. Lille winger Dimitri Payet has pulled out of the squad after hurting his right shin in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Nancy, while defender Patrice Evra (left knee) and Nasri (muscle cramps) sat out Monday's training.
Blanc rested Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery and Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby, who are both recovering from ankle injuries.
Chile is playing its first match since losing to Venezuela in the Copa America quarterfinals.
Coach Claudio Borghi is without forwards Matias Fernandez, Humberto Suazo, and Mauricio Pinilla. The rest of the team is likely to similar to the one which lost to Venezuela, with Juventus defender Arturo Vidal, Birmingham midfielder Jean Beausejour, Sevilla midfielder Gary Medel, and Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez all available.
''France has a very good team and plays very good football,'' Borghi said. ''It will be a good way to see how good we really are.''