Soccer

Raphael Varane is key at the heart of France's back 4

PARIS (AP) With six goals in two matches, France's offensive potential was on display last week as the host nation stepped up its preparations for next year's European Championship.

Karim Benzema ended a one-year drought with the national team with two goals against Armenia and Olivier Giroud left his confidence struggles behind with two more against Denmark. Teenage prodigy Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann also excelled.

After the 2-1 win in Copenhagen, which extended the team's winning streak to four matches, France coach Didier Deschamps said competition within his squad is so dense it's making it tough on him.

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''We've maintained our positive dynamics, with different players, but each player should feel important and do their best to make my choices tough ones to make,'' Deschamps said. ''Among the 23-man squad, there are a lot of players who also deserve to have a chance.''

But of all the decisions Deschamps will need to make before finalizing his team for Euro 2016, there is one player he can't do without: Raphael Varane at center half.

Since last year's World Cup in Brazil, where France lost to Germany in the quarterfinals, Varane has become the essential piece in Deschamps' puzzle. The 23-year-old Real Madrid defender is the only player to have started all 14 matches played by France since then, wearing the captain's armband three times.

As host, France has already qualified for Euro 2016 and all of those matches were friendly games.

Varane, who made his international debut two years ago, has been impressing for a while with his technique, speed and physical qualities. Back in 2011, he was hailed as Laurent Blanc's natural heir by France great Zinedine Zidane, and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho regards him as ''the best central defender in the world.''

It was Mourinho who installed Varane as a regular starter when he was in charge of Real Madrid, recruiting the Frenchman as the club's third-choice center back behind Sergio Ramos and Pepe.

''I was not doing well and I was unable to do the things I wanted to do on the field,'' Varane once told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper of his time with Mourinho. ''So he took it up with me. He asked why I wasn't running more in training. At first I was not impressed, but I eventually realized he was right. I had to do more.''

Varane has since cemented his status at Madrid, where he remains in competition with Pepe.

With France, he is an undisputable starter, and a leader by example. Against the Danes on Sunday, he played just one half but thwarted every incursion in the French box with incisive tackles and interceptions.

''One of my objectives is to be as regular as possible, to string together matches,'' said Varane, who has played with six different partners in the back, including Mamadou Sakho, Laurent Koscielny and Eliaquim Mangala. ''Now it's time to assess our form against Germany and England (in November).''

With Varane offering all guarantees, the main issue for Deschamps is to find the adequate man to play alongside him in the heart of the French back four.