Among the most startling sights at such a captivatingly unpredictable tournament was the picture of a bemused Roberto Baggio, Italy's 'Il Divino', trudging from the Giants Stadium field after 20 minutes of mesmerising Norway. Following Gianluca Pagliuca's dismissal, Arrigo Sacchi, the Azzuri coach who lives with pressure few people could imagine let alone survive, sacrificed Baggio to introduce Luca Marchegiani. 'I wasn't thrilled,' Baggio said.
After some morale-boosting words from the coach, Baggio's disquiet had subsided by the time he arrived in Washington for today's Group E denouement with Mexico. 'Roberto Baggio is a great champion,' Sacchi said. 'He knows what he has to do now - we need victory to qualify.'
A point may suffice, yet rarely can Italy have required their maverick playmaker more. Collective spirits, encapsulated by the sleeves-rolled zeal of Giuseppe Signori and Dino Baggio, produced victory over unenterprising Norway; but to outwit Mexico's rejuvenated team, Italy will turn to Roberto Baggio, who brings such variety to their attack.
The 27-year-old began the tournament with stratospheric personal and public expectations. His subsequent influence reduced by the tactics of Jack Charlton and Sacchi, the Juventus idol knows he must today mastermind the subjugation of Mexico.
Casiraghi remains a poor attacking partner for Baggio but the projected midfield of Nicola Berti, Dino Baggio, Demetrio Albertini and Signori represents a strong, mobile supporting act. In defence, Paolo Maldini has recovered from injury and will replace his Milan colleague, the injured Franco Baresi, as captain. Alessandro Costacurta, also of Milan, stated that 'without Baresi, our team is undergoing a meaningful change'. Many consider the unavailability of the increasingly vulnerable Baresi a covert blessing.
Mexico, though, are confident of outwitting depleted foe. Led by Luis Garcia and a fine target man in Luis Alves, Miguel Mejia Baron's versatile conquerors of Ireland present substantial opposition, particularly with the athletic Jorge Campos in goal.
With so much at stake, a classic may not be on the cards. But it will certainly be eventful - Roberto Baggio should ensure that.
ITALY: Marchegiani (Lazio); Benarrivo (Parma), Costacurta (Milan), Apolloni (Parma), Maldini (Milan), Berti (Internazionale), Albertini (Milan), D Baggio (Parma), Signori, Casiraghi (both Lazio), Baggio (Juventus).
MEXICO (probable): Campos (UNAM); Rodriguez (Toluca), Ramirez Perales, Suarez (both UNAM), Del Olmo (Veracruz), Bernal (Toluca), L Garcia (Atletico Madrid), Ambriz, A Garcia Aspe (both Necaxa), Alves (America), Hermosillo (Cruz Azul).
Referee: F Lamolina (Argentina).
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