- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

PARIS (AP) - Just as coach Didier Deschamps was instilling genuine confidence into his side, France’s preparations to win the tournament for the third time have been overshadowed by off-field matters.

An ongoing judicial case involving striker Karim Benzema and winger Mathieu Valbuena looks like depriving Deschamps of his best striker.

Benzema was suspended from the national team on Thursday after being charged with conspiracy to blackmail, relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape featuring Valbuena.

He only has an outside chance of playing if he clears his name.

Still, Deschamps has options in attack, with Olivier Giroud raring to be given the No. 9 jersey and Manchester United’s 20-year-old starlet Anthony Martial pushing for a starting place.

France is looking for a hat trick of tournament wins on home soil.

Led by the brilliance of Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane in different decades, it won Euro 84 and the 1998 World Cup in front of its own fans, playing some stylish football along the way. It also won Euro 2000, co-hosted by the Netherlands and Belgium.

Deschamps, who had to cope without Franck Ribery at the last World Cup, wanted the 27-year-old Benzema to be his talisman this time.

But he will probably need someone else to inspire his side.

Here is a look at France’s top three players and its coach, Deschamps:


HUGO LLORIS - For many years, there were doubts about whether Lloris was vocal and commanding enough to be France’s captain.

The softly-spoken Lloris barely talked in news conferences, calmly muttering platitudes under his breath.

But since warning his teammates to shape up before a crucial 2014 World Cup playoff against Ukraine two years ago, he has come of age.

Now settled in the Premier League with Tottenham, Lloris was a No. 1 priority for Manchester United until David de Gea decided to stay.

Quick racing across his line and capable of outstanding reflex saves, the 72-cap Lloris has the added quality of acting as a sweeper, often rushing off his line to thwart attacks early.

Despite a slight weakness on crosses, he remains one of Europe’s top goalies.


RAPHAEL VARANE - France likes to pride itself on silky, ball-playing center-halves who prefer to intercept rather than lunge into tackles.

Deschamps has found his lynchpin at the back in Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane - an ever-present over the past 18 months.

Varane is the most stylish center-half France has had since Laurent Blanc helped France win the ‘98 World Cup and Euro 2000.

But his partnership with Laurent Koscielny still needs to gel and this means added pressure for the 22-year-old Varane, who is relatively inexperienced with 27 caps.

It remains to be seen whether he can cope with the pressure of holding France’s back line together.


PAUL POGBA - The Juventus star is the most sought-after midfielder in Europe, with his valuation in the 100-million euros bracket.

But for France he has yet to justify that reputation and can sometimes even look out of sorts, although that is more of a tactical issue.

Pogba’s attacking panache means he loves to burst forward and unleash his venomous shot, but Deschamps wants him to play a deeper role because of his dynamic tackling.

This has led to some frustrating performances for Les Bleus, but Euro 2016 is Pogba’s big chance to become France’s new midfield maestro on home soil.

He would dearly love to follow in the footsteps of Zidane and Platini.


COACH: DIDIER DESCHAMPS - Who better to lead France to glory than the man who captained Les Bleus to success at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000?

As a ball-winning midfielder, Deschamps won everything in a glittering career and then coached France to the World Cup quarterfinals in Brazil last year.

He has instilled a rigid sense of discipline and pride into a side more prone to inconsistency and histrionics in recent years.

But the ongoing Benzema case threatens to derail Deschamps’ bid to bring France back to the top, and his squad choice will be crucial in preventing the bickering that blighted previous campaigns.

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