Football: The lion's share for Christian

The search for a national hero: The Italians warm to a foot soldiers' favourite while the French put their faith in home comforts made in Monaco; Phil Shaw talks to the battering ram striker who has revealed a deft touch
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The Independent Online
THE Scots have their kilts, the Norwegians their Viking helmets and the Cameroonians come accompanied by "witch doctors" with tickling sticks. Even so, it was a surprise to see Italy supporters at the game against Cameroon dressed as Roman Legionaries, complete with body armour and togas. The illusion was shattered when one pulled a mobile phone from his scabbard. Knowing the Italian sense of style, the outfits were probably by Armani or Versace.

It is too soon to hail Cesare Maldini, the oft-maligned coach of the three-time world champions, or to argue that the Italians will be able to look back after the final on 12 July and say: "We came, we scored, we conquered." But, after the anguish of seeing England force them to play off against Russia for the right to come to France, Italy are having less trouble with Group B than they did in qualifying.

Defeat by Austria at St Denis on Tuesday, in conjunction with a Chilean victory over Cameroon in Nantes, could still see Maldini's army retreating ruefully over the Alps. However, for a nation renowned as slow starters - in 1982 they drew all three group games yet went on to lift the trophy, while in 1994 they lost the opening match to the Republic of Ireland but ended up contesting the final - they have been quick to give their foot- soldier fans cause for optimism.

The most striking aspect of Italy's performances so far has been the form of their front-runners, especially Christian Vieri. There were times in Montpellier when it was a case of a Christian being thrown to the Indomitable Lions, such was the ferocity of the African tackling. The Roman withstood it all to emerge with two goals, trebling his tally for the finals and encouraging the hope that he could bring to France 98 the scoring knack that Luigi Riva, Paolo Rossi and Toto Schillaci contributed to past campaigns.

For one who does not turn 25 until the day of the final, Vieri has crammed a lot into his career. Mark Bosnich, the Aston Villa goalkeeper, knew him as a 13-year-old in Sydney when Vieri's father, a former Juventus star, was winding down his career there. "There was nothing of Christian and a more uncoordinated kid is hard to imagine," the Australian said. "But when he played against Villa [for Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Cup in March] he was incredibly strong and he pulled brilliantly off defenders' shoulders."

Vieri played for Juventus himself after working his way up via no fewer than five lower- division clubs. Maldini made him a regular in his Under-21 and Olympic sides, but the Turin giants accepted pounds 12.5m from Atletico last summer.

Logical as the deal must have seemed - Juve had just bought Filippo Inzaghi to partner Alessandro Del Piero - hindsight suggests they may have acted in haste. In Italy's opening draw with Chile and the 3-0 defeat of Cameroon, Vieri demonstrated both a deft touch and the reasons why the Italian FA media brochure describes him as "a real battering ram in the box".

When a British journalist collared him after Tuesday's game, Vieri smiled and said: "English fans may know me as the one whose header went just past the post in the last minute in Rome last October. But now I've got three goals in these finals and I'd like to be remembered more for scoring on this stage."

Asked whether he had his sights on the Golden Boot awarded to the competition's leading scorer, Vieri replied: "No, of course not. The most important thing is that Italy do well, although the more goals I score the further we're likely to go."

His place against Austria is not in doubt. Who plays alongside him is a different matter. The Italian Prime Minister was among those who entered last week's debate about the feasibility of having Vieri, Del Piero and Roberto Baggio in the same line-up.

Baggio, the artist formerly known as the "Divine Ponytail", has now snipped off the codino. At 31, he is merely a gifted mortal once more. He started sharply against Cameroon, adding a cross for Luigi Di Biagio's early goal to his "assist" and penalty against Chile, only to fade after one particularly cynical challenge.

At the point when Del Piero replaced him in the second half, Baggio's impact was minimal. Maldini later said he had appeared tired; it may be that Baggio will be restricted to cameo roles now that the 23-year-old Del Piero, who the coach calls "our Ronaldo", looks fit and fresh.

The swagger with which Vieri and Del Piero performed in the final 15 minutes helped to explain why the coach felt he could do without Chelsea's Gianfranco Zola and Pierluigi Casiraghi.

The other Italian who caught the eye was Di Biagio, a dynamic midfielder who won his first cap five years ago but had to wait until England's visit for his second. Another native of the Eternal City, known as "Gigi" to his colleagues, is keeping Roberto Di Matteo out of the team.

The promise of the partnership which Juventus passed up augurs well for Italy, while the need to avoid Brazil in the second round (when they might well meet Scotland in Marseilles) should concentrate minds against Austria. For the moment at least, it is time for Romans, and their friends and countrymen, to lend Cesare a cheer.