"It is not about revenge. It is not about revenge. It is not about revenge." It is, of course. No matter how many times the French players and management deny it, tonight's World Cup final rematch at the Stade de France is, for the French in particular, about revenge, for la Patrie, and for Zizou.
For the Italians it is a little more complicated. With French players such as Lilian Thuram decrying their Berlin triumph as undeserved the Italians may want to win to confirm their superiority, but their failure to defeat Lithuania in Naples on Saturday has brought into sharp focus the reality that European Championship qualifying points are also at stake. Italy's previous world champions, in 1982, failed to reach the subsequent European Championship. "It won't happen to us," insisted Filippo Inzaghi. Nevertheless, with Ukraine also in the group, not to mention a resurgent Scotland, it might, especially as the Azzurri have a rookie coach in charge.
The appointment of Roberto Donadoni, and Italy's poor start on Saturday, can be traced back to the fallout from "Moggipoli". The match-fixing scandal involving the former general manager of Juventus, Luciano Moggi, drew the players together during the World Cup, contributing to their victory, but now it is casting a shadow.
It forced the season to be put back while it was determined which division Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina would be in. Donadoni subsequently had to waste the mid-August pre-season friendly with Croatia by fielding a third string, and losing 2-0. Thus, the Spanish-based Antonio Cassano and Fabio Cannavaro aside, most of the squad were playing their first serious game of the season on Saturday. By contrast only Internazionale's Patrick Vieira, of the French team, does not have a handful of matches under his belt.
"France is much further ahead of us in their preparation," Donadoni said. So is Raymond Domenech, the French coach. Midway through the World Cup he cut an isolated, beleaguered figure, scorned by the senior players who appeared to run the team. Having led them to the final, and seen the untouchable Zinedine Zidane retire, his hand has been strengthened. He has quickly moved to underline this by insisting Claude Makelele joins up with the squad and matching Jose Mourinho, Makelele's manager at Chelsea, barb for barb. Released from the need to give Zidane a free role, the team now play a conventional 4-4-2 and secured an impressive 3-0 win in Georgia on Saturday. Penalty shoot-outs aside, they have not lost in 12 matches, nine of them victories. Tonight they will field nine of the 11 World Cup finalists, with the only changes being Louis Saha (if he recovers from an ankle injury) for Zidane and, in goal, Gregory Coupet for Fabien Barthez, who has retired. With the exception of Makelele (33) and Thuram (34), this XI should be able to go through to the European Championship finals. Thuram may also make it, given the lack of cover (Jean-Alain Boumsong, now in Serie B with Juventus, is on the bench).
Donadoni, by contrast, is still finding his feet and tonight he is without much of the striking talent which propelled Italy to their fourth World Cup. Francesco Totti has "taken a break" from international football in order to "regain top form" and will not be available until March. Alessandro del Piero, Luca Toni and Vincenzo Iaquinta are absent due to a lack of match fitness. In central defence, Alessandro Nesta is injured and his World Cup understudy, Marco Materazzi, is banned following the fallout from his confrontation with Zidane. At least Gianluca Zambrotta should be back.
Donadoni must also deal with heightened levels of expectation, and the effect Italy's status has on opponents. "We have to get it into our heads that whoever plays us, being world champions, is going to be extremely competitive and we're going to have to do the same," Gennaro Gattuso, who does not usually lack competitiveness, noted.
It all makes for a steep learning curve for Donadoni, 43 on Saturday. As an intelligent, understated midfielder in Milan's star-studded team of the late 1980s and 1990s he won three Champions' League finals and six Serie A titles, his record further embellished by 63 international caps. But his coaching experience is limited to smaller clubs - a year at Lecce, two spells at Livorno and three months at Genoa. Only 13 months of this work has been in Serie A.
Which begs the question: why Donadoni? One reason is that the Italian federation is not in the habit of poaching club coaches, which ruled out several contenders, notably Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini. Then there was the enthusiasm, post- Moggipoli, for a clean sweep. Donadoni represented youth, and a fresh, untarnished face.
In the circumstances, Donadoni's decision to alter formation as well as personnel for the Lithuania game, from Lippi's 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, looks ill-judged. A more conservative approach is expected tonight. Defeat could leave Italy five points adrift of the second qualifying place.
It would also give the French their revenge. "They know they would not have won the World Cup without penalties," insisted Thuram. "We should have won the World Cup. We were the better team, and we were in control."
Strong words, enough to provoke Gattuso into replying, "I know we usually complain after losses, but they do it even more," but Thuram's boast was an empty one. The Gallic mood was more truthfully articulated by Domenech and Henry. "Sometimes I wake up at night and think: 'Why did Gianluigi Buffon make that save [from Zidane's 104th-minute header]?" Domenech said. Henry added: "It's not revenge because it's not like a boxing match where you can win the belt back. If we win, it will be three points, but it won't give us the World Cup." It would none the less be satisfying, and it could do serious damage to Donadoni and Italy. Henry concluded: "This is a match of stories, something always happens."
France (4-4-2): Coupet (Lyon); Sagnol (Bayern Munich), Thuram (Barcelona), Gallas (Arsenal), Abidal (Lyon); Ribéry (Marseille), Vieira (Internazionale), Makelele (Chelsea), Malouda (Lyon); Saha (Manchester United), Henry (Arsenal).
Italy (4-4-2): Buffon (Juventus); Zambrotta (Barcelona), Cannavaro (Real Madrid), Barzagli (Palermo), Grosso (Internazionale); De Rossi (Roma), Pirlo (Milan), Gattuso (Milan), Perotta (Roma); Cassano (Real Madrid), Gilardino (Milan).
Referee: M Fandel (Germany).
Materazzi finally reveals what made Zidane blow his top
Neither Zinedine Zidane nor Marco Materazzi are expected to be present at the Stade de France tonight but their confrontation in the World Cup final will loom over the tie. That was ensured yesterday when Materazzi broke his silence to explain exactly what he said to provoke Zidane into butting him.
Materazzi said: "I was tugging his shirt, he said to me 'if you want my shirt so much I'll give it to you afterwards,' I answered that I'd prefer his sister. It's not a particularly nice thing to say, I recognise that. I didn't even know he had a sister before all this happened."
Fifa, the world governing body, banned Materazzi for two matches - this is the second - while Zidane was banned for three games and fined £3,260, commuted to community service as he has retired.
Zidane plans to play in a charity match in November between Algeria and a team drawn from France's 1998 World Cup winners then travel to Algeria, his father's homeland, to see how the €950,000 (£640,000) raised at a similar match between a Marseilles XI and the France '98 side has been spent. He has yet to do his community service. His popularity in France is undimmed. One French record company had a hit when they set a video of the butt to zouk music.
Apart from his suspension Materazzi has had a good summer. Internazionale offered him a new contract. He also collected a Serie A winners' medal when Inter were awarded the championship after the match-fixing scandal. Because of his ban he plays his first match of the season this weekend when Inter visit Fiorentina.
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