Minsk, Belarus, June 4: Florent Malouda scored an equalizer to earn France a 1-1 draw away to Belarus in a scrappy European Championship qualifier on Friday.
An own goal from France defender Eric Abidal gave Belarus a deserved lead in the 20th minute, but Malouda finished neatly two minutes later after being set up by Karim Benzema in France's first attack of the match.
France remains top of Group D with 13 points from six matches, while Belarus is second with nine points.
“It was a disappointing match, especially in the first half when we didn't start the match the right way,” France coach Laurent Blanc said. “We did everything in this match, we (even) scored the two goals. The first in our own goal did us some good because it woke us up.”
France had won its four previous qualifying matches, scoring eight goals without conceding, after losing its opening match 1-0 at home to Belarus in September.
“They have taken four points off us in two matches, which is a lot,” Blanc said. “They're not better than us but the reality is they have taken four points off us, so we'll have to make do with a point tonight.”
Belarus made a confident start, closing France down and tackling aggressively, while the tricky Timofei Kalachev caused the visitors major problems every time he got the ball in midfield.
Igor Shitov tested Hugo Lloris with a long shot that the Lyon goalkeeper tipped over after 12 minutes.
France was slow, sloppy and ponderous throughout, particularly in defense where center-half Mamadou Sakho looked nervous in his first start for Laurent Blanc's team.
France's dismal start was punished after 20 minutes when Kalachev floated over a freekick from the left and Barcelona leftback Abidal turned the ball into his own net, even though he was under no pressure from a Belarus striker.
Luckily for Blanc, France's attack looked sharp when it finally got the chance to show something.
France rightback Bacary Sagna charged to the byline and pulled the ball back for Benzema. The Real Madrid striker laid it off perfectly into Malouda's path, and he curled the ball into the bottom corner for his sixth international goal.
Although Chelsea failed to defend its Premier League and FA Cup titles this season, Malouda enjoyed the most prolific season of his career on the wing, scoring 13 league goals.
However, the strike did little to galvanize a lackluster France side that struggled to put two passes together in a scrappy first half. Several players, particularly Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, clearly looked jaded.
Ribery had not played any club football for three weeks, while midfielder Samir Nasri started only one game in the last six weeks of Arsenal's topsy-turvy season.
“We were lacking a bit of impetus and energy, but we knew that,” Blanc said. “We could have won tonight, but I don't think we deserved to.”
Even though Benzema was way off his peak form, he still looked France's best player, swiping at an opportunity near the back post and hitting his volley high and wide after 35 minutes.
From a corner shortly after, France midfielder Alou Diarra rose well but headed wide.
Blanc picked a 4-2-3-1 formation with Benzema as the lone striker.
Abidal, a recent Champions League winner with Barcelona, was picked ahead of Manchester United's Patrice Evra at leftback, while Sakho replaced the injured Philippe Mexes alongside Lille's Adil Rami.
Benzema wasted a half-chance in the 65th when he shot straight at Sergei Veremko from a narrow angle on the right of the penalty area.
Nasri created another shooting chance for Benzema, moments later, but again Benzema failed to properly test Veremko.
Belarus: Sergei Veremko; Aleksandr Martynovich, Vitaly Trubilo, Yan Tigorev, Anton Putilo (Sergei Kislyak, 85), Timofei Kalachev (Vyacheslav Hleb, 90), Sergei Omelyanchuk, Andrei Voronkov, Maksim Bordachev, Dmitri Verkhovtsov, Igor Shitov.
France: Hugo Lloris; Bacary Sagna, Mamadou Sakho, Adil Rami, Eric Abidal, Alou Diarra, Abou Diaby (Loic Remy, 73), Florent Malouda, Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema. AP