Football: Vieri enjoys an Italian cruise

Italy 3 Di Biagio 8, Vieri 75, 89 Cameroon 0 Att: 35,000
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The Independent Online
ITALY MOVED to the top of Group B, at the same time increasing the likelihood of a second-round meeting with Scotland in Marseilles, after seeing off a spirited and often over-zealous challenge by Cameroon last night.

Despite struggling to build on an early goal by Luigi Di Biagio - their 100th in the finals - Italy eventually cruised home against opponents depleted for 47 minutes by the dismissal of Raymond Kalla. Christian Vieri snuffed out Cameroon's fightback with two late goals.

After feverish speculation surrounding the composition of Italy's strike force, Cesari Maldini decided that three into two would not go. The partnership of Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri was left intact while Alessandro Del Piero began on the substitutes' bench.

Italy did make one adjustment, pushing Francesco Moriero into a more advanced position on the right wing. Remarkably, the starting line-up was that rarest of animals - an Azzurri side without a single Juventus player.

History offered Cameroon a modicum of hope. The presence in the media stand of the gnarled veteran Roger Milla was a reminder that the "Indomitable Lions" of 1982 held the Italians to a draw at the equivalent stage of the World Cup in Spain.

The memory of that afternoon in Vigo is not as embarrassing as one might expect for Italy. They recovered to win the tournament, due in no small part to the predatory instincts of Paolo Rossi. Now the onus was on the Juve rejects, Vieri and Roberto Baggio, to prove that they could also rise to the occasion.

They wasted little time in doing so. After only four minutes Vieri touched the ball over the onrushing Jacques Songo'o only for Rigobert Song to hack clear before it crossed the line. Roberto Baggio, winning his 50th cap, was then involved as Italy swept into an eighth-minute lead, although Cameroon's defending left much to be desired.

From a short corner by Alessandro Nesta, the born-again Baggio swung in a cross which the unmarked Di Biagio twisted to head in. The ball found the net by the far post, which the Africans had inexcusably left unmanned.

Cameroon struggled to come to terms with the sharpness of Italy's attack. Vieri nearly doubled the lead after getting behind the libero, Kalla, in the 21st minute. Songo'o, acting as a second sweeper, drove his clearance straight at the Italian and was relieved to see the rebound fly wide of his net.

A sublime turn by Dino Baggio, followed by a flighted pass which again found the hungry Vieri darting through, created the next moment of danger. The goalkeeper saved athletically, but a vicious tackle from behind by Pierre Njanka on Roberto Baggio was a reflection of Cameroon's inability to break into the game during the first half.

If the Australian referee lamentably neglected his duty by brandishing only a yellow card, he had no such qualms after Kalla perpetrated a shocking two-footed lunge on Di Biagio.

However, as British television pundits are forever reminding us, it can often be harder to play against 10 men motivated by a sense of injustice - however misplaced that may be - than 11 lacking such an impetus.

Cameroon duly finished the first half with a stinging long-range drive by Patrick Mboma which seemed to rock Gianluca Pagliuca back as he grasped it by the upright.

The introduction of the 20-year-old Joseph-Desire Job further rallied the underdogs. Seven minutes into the second half, Pierre Wome bludgeoned a diagonal free-kick which flashed across Italy's six-yard box too quickly for friend or foe to react.

Mboma, heavily bandaged in the style made fashionable by Paul Ince in Rome following a clash of heads, was next to threaten. Nesta was forced to scramble the ball away hastily, yet within a minute, Job materialised in the inside-left channel to unleash a rising drive which Pagliuca did well to tip over.

Cameroon clearly sensed that all was not lost. The French section of the crowd gleefully roared them on and whistled with disdain after every Italian error. Cesare Maldini's reaction was to bring on Roberto Di Matteo and Del Piero shortly after the hour. The latter replaced Roberto Baggio, an indication that the coach will not be swayed into accommodating his three principal strikers in the same team.

With 15 minutes remaining, Italy shook off their lethargy to make the game safe. Moriero sent Vieri scampering through, whereupon the Spanish- based player beat Songo'o with the deftest of chips.

Songo'o made a fine save to prevent Del Piero opening his account, but was helpless as Vieri made it 3-0 a minute from time after a mistake by Wome.

CAMEROON (1-3-4-2): Songo'o (Deportivo La Coruna); Kalla (Panahaiki); Njanka (Racing Bafoussam), Song (Metz), Wome (Luchese); Ndo (Cotonsport Garoua), Angibeaud (Nice), Mboma (Gamba Osaka), Olembe (Nantes); Ipoua (Rapid Vienna), Omam Biyik (Sampdoria). Substitutes: Job (Lyon) for Ipoua, h-t; Tchami (Hertha Berlin) for Omam Biyik, 66; Eto'o (Leganes) for Mboma, 66.

ITALY (1-3-3-3): Pagliuca (Internazionale); Costacurta (Milan); Nesta (Lazio), Cannavaro (Parma), Maldini (Milan); D Baggio (Parma), Di Biagio (Roma), Albertini (Milan); Moriero (Internazionale), Vieri (Atletico Madrid), R Baggio (Bologna). Substitutes: Di Matteo (Chelsea) for Albertini, 62; Del Piero (Juventus) for R Baggio, 65; Di Livio (Juventus) for Moriero, 84.

Referee: E Lennie (Aus).