Saliba, Kante, Pogba and France's most intense World Cup starting line-up battles to watch

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With the World Cup on the horizon, this is the period international managers earn their corn. Monitoring club form, tweaking the idea of a perfect Xl, deciding on who will be a good squad player and who to leave at home. For some countries, that decision-making process is going to be stressful. France manager Didier Deschamps is in for a particularly brutal process.

Having too many good options is an enviable problem to have, but nonetheless a tricky matter when it pits tournament-tested veterans with sentimental pull against rising stars. And few nations boast as many exciting prospects as Les Bleus.

Jules Kounde, 23, continues his growth for Barcelona despite being used at right-back rather than his preferred position of centre-back. Aurelien Tchouameni, 22, played a ridiculous, dance-inspiring over the top assist to Rodrygo last weekend in a derby win over Atletico Madrid. He's fully answered Carlo Ancelotti's demand to play better. Wesley Fofana, 21, just cost Chelsea a fee that could rise to £75 million ($88m).

Those are a few of the players who weren’t around in 2018, when France featured only two outfield starters older than 30 en route to World Cup glory. Most of the first-teamers then believed they would be able to keep their place in 2022 - but now that's not so clear.

Here are six of the most interesting starting line-up scraps Deschamps must track as the 2022 World Cup approaches, as of late-September...

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    Hugo Lloris vs Mike Maignan

    Surely the captain won’t be dropped, right?

    You know what, he probably won't. GOAL correspondent Naim Beneddra says there is "no chance" that Lloris loses his place barring unforeseen circumstances. But the AC Milan keeper is a better player than Lloris at the moment, period. In every statistical category that matters (and even some that don't - he kicks the ball eight yards further on average, for example) he performs better than Lloris, and he's coming off a league championship win to boot. If Hugo messes up in Qatar, don't say we didn't tell you his deputy was the better bet.

    As it stands: Lloris

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    Lucas Hernandez vs Presnel Kimpembe vs William Saliba

    Raphael Varane is enjoying a positive run at Manchester United since being paired with Lisandro Martinez, and besides, he’s a Deschamps favourite. He's at the top of the team sheet, no doubt about it. Kounde, meanwhile, is just about a certainty for the starting line-up on current form.

    If Deschamps plays Kounde at right-back or in a back-three, it would open up one more starting centre-back spot.

    William Saliba’s quick acclimation to the Premier League at Arsenal makes him a surprise candidate, but Deschamps is far more familiar with Bayern Munich's Lucas Hernandez and Paris Saint-Germain's Presnel Kimpembe.

    Lucas Hernandez started the 2018 final at left-back, but has since transitioned to a central role and entered September as the front runner to be picked by the manager. He's now out several weeks with an adductor injury, which will give Saliba and Kimpembe extra opportunity. Regardless, he remains the first choice barring a further health setback.

    Keep an eye on Fofana and Dayot Upamecano as long-shot options, too.

    As it stands: Lucas Hernandez

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    Ferland Mendy vs Theo Hernandez vs Lucas Digne

    Ferland Mendy, the 27-year-old starting left-back for Real Madrid, has made just seven senior France appearances in his career. He hasn’t appeared for Les Bleus since 2020.

    "Mendy went down in the hierarchy," says Beneddra. "He was not very convincing when he played [under Deschamps]."

    Except a rash of recent injuries at the position have changed everything. AC Milan's Theo Hernandez was primed to rove the left corridor in Qatar, but he's out at least a couple of weeks. Lucas Digne was called in as a replacement for France's September squad, but now he's also out with an adductor injury.

    So, Mendy is back in camp with an unexpected chance to make a late impression. He'll need to play the games of his life to change Deschamps' mind.

    As it stands: Theo Hernandez

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    N’Golo Kante vs Aurelien Tchouameni

    The longer N’Golo Kante goes without a sustained stretch of full health, the more France will need to think of backup defensive midfield options. He is traditionally an absolute certainty for Deschamps, but he made just 21 league starts for Chelsea in 2021-22 and remains out with a hamstring injury, opening the door for Tchouameni to start against Austria and Denmark in the Nations League later this month.

    If Kante is fit entering Qatar, he'll get the nod. Can't overthink it. But Tchouameni is doing his best at Real Madrid to make things interesting and at least represents a strong Plan B.

    Aston Villa's Boubacar Kamara, another candidate, was sent home with an injury this week, which could enable Monaco's Youssouf Fofana to receive his first senior cap.

    As it stands: Kante

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    Paul Pogba vs Eduardo Camavinga

    Paul Pogba has been the man for France for so long - and he has enjoyed some of the best moments in his country’s history - but relentless negativity at club level and poor health have eroded confidence. A move to Juventus was supposed to bring renewed joy. Instead, he suffered a pre-season meniscus injury and has yet to play in Serie A this term.

    Juventus confirmed Pogba would need to undergo surgery after alternative options failed. He'll be out about two more months, which will cut it close with the World Cup.

    Eduardo Camavinga is the natural fill-in as the pivot partner to France’s defensive midfielder, but the Real Madrid player turns 20 two weeks before the tournament and might not be seen as being ready for the big moment. He'll make the case that his super-sub role in Real Madrid's Champions League run proved his preparedness - but there's a difference in playmaking expectations for France compared to a Blancos group already teeming with elite passers.

    Beyond Pogba and Camavinga, Marseille's Matteo Guendouzi has received enough playing time in recent camps to suggest he is in contention.

    As it stands: Camavinga

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    Antoine Griezmann vs Christopher Nkunku vs Moussa Diaby vs Kingsley Coman vs Ousmane Dembele

    We know Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema are certain starters, but who is the best supporting attacker for them? Deschamps has a ridiculous set of options here.

    The coach adores Antoine Griezmann, and despite the Atletico Madrid man's decline in club performance, Beneddra says Griezmann should still be considered the favourite. That said, Griezmann's starting job is not quite secure, and among France fans, a debate rages over whether others should be given the opportunity to shine.

    Bayern Munich star Kingsley Coman ticks many boxes - experience under Deschamps, proven winner everywhere he goes, still at the top of his game - but the manager shows a preference for support men in more central positions. Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele and Bayer Leverkusen's Moussa Diaby, electric as they may be at the moment, could hit the same wall.

    RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku, then, is the most likely player to unseat Griezmann. He won the Bundesliga’s Footballer of the Year last term over Robert Lewandowski, and he’s started this campaign well, too.

    Veterans Nabil Fekir and Thomas Lemar are also fighting to recapture Deschamps’ attention, though their ambitions are more likely to make the squad rather than crack the starting XI. They are both injured and absent from the late-September squad.

    As it stands: Griezmann

  • Projected France starting XI

    Goalkeeper: Lloris

    Defence: Kounde, Lucas Hernandez, Varane

    Midfield: Theo Hernandez, Camavinga, Kante, Benjamin Pavard

    Attack: Mbappe, Griezmann, Benzema