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May 27, 2014

Deschamps hoping to resolve some positions in Norway friendly

Normally, you should not get excited at the prospect of facing Norway.

Really, no offence to the Norwegians but they are not the sexiest, strongest or most spectacular team in the world.

Usually, there is nothing appealing about playing against them in a competitive game, even less in a friendly as is the case for France on Tuesday in Paris. We are still searching for the reason France is actually facing the Scandinavians. It seems that it is to prepare for the World Cup game against Switzerland (like the other friendly pre-World Cup games against Paraguay and Jamaica are to rehearse facing Ecuador and Honduras). Obviously, the person who had this genius idea has never seen Norway or Switzerland play, as neither team resembles Les Bleus' group opponents.

Anyway, France are playing Norway, and despite everything I have just said, it is actually an exciting game. Indeed, this match should be one of the last pieces in Didier Deschamps' World Cup jigsaw. The puzzle is almost completed but there are still a few bits missing. Tuesday's game will hopefully give us part of the remaining answers.

Didier Deschamps has eight players who are certain to start (if not injured) for France's first World Cup game against Honduras on June 15 in Porto Alegre. He has his tactical system (the 4-3-3 formation) in which Hugo Lloris is the No. 1 keeper (although he will be rested against Norway, and Ruffier will make his France debut).

Laurent Koscielny and Patrice Evra will be the first names on the team sheet alongside the three midfielders (Pogba, Cabaye, Matuidi), and there is no discussion up front for Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema. Which leaves Les Bleus with a right-back, another centre-half and a right winger to find in the next two weeks.

On the right-hand side of the defence, Bacary Sagna and Mathieu Debuchy are fighting for a place in the team. It is fair to say that Sagna had a better season with Arsenal than Debuchy with Newcastle, but Deschamps likes the Magpie, who is younger (28 against 31); has a great relationship with Cabaye, who doesn't play too far from him on the pitch; and has been the regular starter in this position throughout the qualifiers. However, there is not much difference between the two.

Debuchy will start against Norway on Tuesday and Sagna should replace him against Paraguay on June 1 in Nice. Then the one starting the last friendly on June 8 will be the chosen one. Right now, Debuchy is clearly a little bit ahead in the race.

Still at the back, there is a question mark over who will partner Koscielny in the centre. It will be Raphael Varane or Mamadou Sakho.

Deschamps is a big admirer of the young Real Madrid defender, but Sakho was the hero of the incredible playoff second leg against Ukraine when he scored twice to send France to Brazil. They have two different styles: Sakho is a beast physically, strong in the duels, while Varane is so much more elegant, mature and gifted with the ball. He is such a class act, but he is also very young and has been injured a lot this season. Despite his young age (21), Deschamps is a big fan of him. If he is fully fit, I think he is ahead of Sakho. The Liverpool defender is a bit older but has also been injured this season and has a lot to play for against Norway, as he will start alongside Koscielny.

Finally, there is one more place up for grabs up front. As I said, France will play in a 4-3-3 formation and Deschamps needs to find his right winger. There actually should not be any debate. Mathieu Valbuena, the Marseille forward, had a very good two years with France in this position. He has been consistent, decisive, hard-working and overall very convincing. However, the problem is the poor season he just had with his club.

He only scored three goals in Ligue 1 all season, had just six assists and even lost his place in the OM team towards the end of the season. On pure current form, he doesn't deserve to start at the World Cup. But the good thing for him is that the competition isn't much better.

Loic Remy played as a centre-forward for Newcastle and did well for some part of the season before getting injured and struggling for fitness. He also never felt at ease playing on the right with France. Antoine Griezmann is the other option. It's a bit the same as Remy: he had a great first half of the season with Real Sociedad before disappearing. He made his debut at 22 in March against the Netherlands at the Parc des Princes (2-0). He started and had a quiet game, probably overwhelmed by the whole experience. We expected more from him, and he can give more too.

Griezmann will start on the left-hand side against Norway, to deputize for Ribéry, but it will feel like an audition for the right winger position as, at the same time, Valbuena will start on the right. The one who will perform the best will definitely earn some important points in the head coach's mind. If everything goes to plan, Valbuena is definitely the first choice, mostly because of how he has performed in the past 24 months. But he will need to confirm it.

As the World Cup approaches and as Deschamps narrows down his choices, every second counts.